A few nights ago, I sat down on my couch, pulled out my phone, and voted in America’s first all-digital election. I was experiencing a frontier of American democracy that our Founding Fathers couldn’t even dream of.
This radical new experiment was created by the King Conservation District (KCD), a little-known government agency in the Seattle area that recently gave their 1.2 million constituents the option of voting for the agency’s new board of supervisors from any internet-connected device.
Mobile voting is a dream born from the tech-fueled brains of the Silicon Valley. Bradley Tusk, an Uber millionaire whose mission is to bring massive turnout to American elections by rolling out mobile voting nationwide, subsidized KCD’s digital election.
KCD’s election is also a nightmare in the minds of many digital security experts, who warn that there is currently no safe method of mobile voting. Just this week a group of MIT researchers published a paper that eviscerated the security of Tusk’s proprietary mobile voting app. Although that app was not used in KCD’s election.
But neither concerns from election security experts nor Tusk's promises of mobile voting causing massive turnout came to fruition.
There is no sign of any foul play in the election, according to King County Elections, which helped administer the election. There also wasn’t a lot of voters. Only 5,201 votes were cast, according to the latest tally from King County Elections, which works out to less than one percent turnout. Chris Porter, a beekeeper endorsed by the King County Democrats, won.
But just because KCD's election wasn’t hacked, that doesn’t mean digital voting is ready for other elections, according to Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, an election security expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“This was a very low-stakes election and there is no reason to believe it would have been hacked,” Hoffman-Andrews told The Stranger. “Building confidence in a system requires analysis of its properties by experts, and the experts are near-unanimous on e-voting: it's not secure.”
What Happens When Only 10 People Vote?
You could be forgiven if you have never heard of the King Conservation District. This taxpayer-funded agency uses a variety of programs and educational outreach projects to improve the county’s land and environment. KCD is your place to go if you’re looking for a grant for your farmers market or an affordable manure spreader to rent. The agency's budget hovers around $7 million, which is funded by annual landowner fees of around $10 per property, depending on the property type.
However obscure they may be to urbanists in Seattle, KCD is a public agency collecting public funds, which means their elections must be public. State law doesn’t make this any easier for the agency, by requiring them to host their elections at the beginning of year, as opposed to in November when most voters are paying attention. KCD is also required to run and pay for their own election, which is a serious strain on the small agency’s resources.
During KCD’s last election, I tried to find out how I could vote and it took a week for anyone on staff to return my questions despite the fact that the agency was in the midst of an election.
Unsurprisingly, fewer than 4,000 votes were cast last year—which is actually more than earlier elections. In 2015, only 144 people voted. In 2018, only 10 votes were cast, according to KCD records. To be fair, in 2018 there were also no candidates on the ballot so voters had to write in a name.
After The Stranger wrote about last year’s election problems, which included typos on ballots and website malfunctions, KCD reached out to others for help, according to Julie Wise, the director of King County Elections.
“Myself and some of our team members brainstormed and provided some different thoughts around how one could, on a very limited budget, get more word out about the conservation district’s elections,” Wise said. “I let the conservative district know about technology that we’ve used… called Democracy Live.”
King County Elections uses Democracy Live, a local company, to provide ballots to overseas and military voters. Democracy Live has a digital portal that allows voters to download a ballot from the internet, mark and sign it by hand, and then vote by returning that ballot—by either physically mailing it or scanning the ballot and attaching it to an e-mail. Around 14,500 voters used this tool last year, according to King County Elections.
KCD and Democracy Live decided to partner together for this year’s election, but with a slight twist on the work the company usually does. Instead of voters being able to access ballots and then print them out to send in, voters in this election could also mark, sign, and submit their ballots online. This all-digital route was only one option; if voters preferred, they could print the ballot and submit it physically.
When voters cast the digital votes, they were then stored on Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud storage, where King County Elections could access them. The elections agency used a two-part system: First each ballot's signature is individually matched to the signature on the voter's file and then, when a match is confirmed, that digital ballot is printed out at King County Elections headquarters in Renton. Those physical ballots are then counted through the same machines that tabulate the county’s conventional vote-by-mail ballots.
The costs associated with Democracy Live’s work were paid for with a $129,000 contribution from Tusk Philanthropies, an organization owned by Uber millionaire Bradley Tusk, according to Bea Covington, KCD’s executive director. Tusk also paid for advertising and marketing for the election.
Mobile voting has been used previously as a way for oversees voters or voters with disabilities to cast ballots, but this was the first time every single eligible voter had access to voting entirely online, according to Tusk.
This election didn’t make everyone happy. Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who oversees elections across the state but doesn’t have direct control over elections like KCD’s, said the voting method was too untrustworthy to use.
“Cyber experts I have worked with,” Wyman said in a written statement, “including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Washington National Guard, overwhelmingly have identified electronic transmission as too risky for voting and could leave voter information and election infrastructure impaired.”
But King County Elections said there were no signs of foul play in this year's KCD election, and voters’ signatures were matching at comparable rates to normal vote-by-mail elections.
Covington said they heard largely positive reviews of the system.
“On balance, people who actually voted reported to us a really positive experience,” Covington said. “One man in his 60s, who has a disability, said for the first time in his adult life he could cast a vote without assistance.”
But Covington said she wants to get more feedback before they commit to using the platform on their next election, and she isn’t sure it should be used on larger, more consequential elections.
“Should more elections go [to mobile voting]? That’s a tough one,” Covington said. “I think we have a civic engagement crisis in our country and I think we need to be looking at all opportunities to engage voters and get them to participate. There’s certainly other ways to do that.”
Election security experts agree. They think we need to look for those other ways to boost turnout before we jump into running our elections through our iPhones.
A "New, Shiny, Deeply Flawed Technology"
Digital security experts are nearly unanimous that mobile voting is too unreliable for voting, a process that is integral to health of our democracy. When I reached out to two security experts regarding KCD’s election, they found numerous areas that are prone to hacking.
Andrew Appel, a computer science professor at Princeton University, said that because KCD’s votes are stored on Amazon’s cloud servers, the agency is essentially offloading their election security to a private company.
“If the King Conservation District says, ‘We'll let AWS guard our election,’ that means that any corrupt insider, inside Amazon's AWS division, can hack the election,” Appel told The Stranger in an e-mail. “Does King County want to let a private company choose its public officials?”
Appel said an even bigger concern than AWS employees is the security of the individual voters' phones, which could be hacked so that voters are misled into thinking they’ve voted for candidate A, when they’ve really just voted for candidate B. And making matters worse, in this scenario neither the voter nor the election regulator would know there is a mistake.
Hoffman-Andrews from the EFF echoed this same concern, saying the “biggest irremovable risk in e-voting” is the voter’s own phone or other device.
“If some fraction of voters have compromised devices (they do), it doesn't matter whether the record of their vote is stored securely, since their vote was already compromised before it reached storage,” Hoffman-Andrews said.
Hoffman-Andrews also said that just because there is a paper record of the vote stored in King County Elections headquarters in Renton, that doesn’t alleviate the risk. In fact, he said “it completely misses the point” of using paper in elections because the paper itself is supposed to be evidence of a voters’ intent that cannot be electronically tampered with. Since the paper ballot King County Elections prints out comes from the digital system, the paper itself doesn’t guarantee the vote hasn't been tampered with.
These criticisms were largely confirmed in an MIT research paper published this week that examined Voatz, a mobile voting app created by Tusk Philanthropies that has been used on a limited scale in elections across the country. Tusk claimed that the app was highly secure because, in part, it was using blockchain technology. But the MIT researchers found that the app was extremely vulnerable to hacking that could “alter, stop, or expose a user’s vote.” The researchers recommended that the app not be used.
Tusk Philanthropies did not return The Stranger's request for comment but Voatz did make a statement claiming the MIT paper was flawed.
Voatz was not used in KCD’s election and, it should be noted, KCD’s election was run on a mobile platform hosted by AWS, not an app downloaded to your phone.
Bryan Finney, the president of Democracy Live, said that his company is well aware of these security concerns and is engaging actively and transparently with experts to try to mitigate them. He pointed out that AWS is federally approved for hosting sensitive government documents. He added that security concerns on individual voters’ devices is one area they are actively engaging with experts on.
But Finney pointed out that his company is not simply replacing conventional ballots with phones; they are trying to find more secure ways for people with disabilities and overseas voters to cast their ballots. Federal and state law allows voters like these (which, again, numbered around 14,500 in King County last year) to attach their ballots to emails, a process that Finney said was especially unsecure.
“Right now the way they are transmitting ballots back and forth [on e-mails] is profoundly the least secure method of transmitting ballots," Finney said. “We have to come up with a more secure method but we want to fully engage with the security community, so that’s why we are starting small.”
Finney also pointed out that forcing every voter to use a conventional ballot could pose serious problems for the millions of Americans with disabilities. He thinks digital voting is worth exploring to try to help those people.
“There’s 12 to 15 percent of voters in this country that can’t hold or see a ballot because they have a disability,” Finney said. "So part of it is not just that we can make it the most secure solution possible but the most accessible solution possible.”
Hoffman-Andrews said he wasn’t convinced.
“There are many proven ways of increasing voter turnout that don't involve the severe risks incurred by e-voting," Hoffman-Andrews said. "Sometimes it's better to do the hard work of putting proven systems into practice than to push for new, shiny, deeply flawed technology like e-voting.”