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New Jersey Will Be Able to Vote Online This Year, But You Probably Never Will

This week, the state is grappling with how to bring their citizens the vote

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Last week, hurricane Sandy took power out in much of the state of New Jersey. This week, the state is grappling with how to bring its citizens the vote. Polling places require power, and many would-be voters don’t have enough gas to drive far away to a polling place with working machines.

So New Jersey is doing something pretty radical. It’s letting voters send in their ballots by email. The state made the announcement two days ago:

To vote electronically, displaced voters may submit a mail-in ballot application either by e-mail or fax to their county clerk. Once an application is approved, the clerk will electronically send a ballot to the voter by either fax or e-mail in accordance to the voter’s preference. Voters must return their electronic ballot – by fax or email – no later than November 6, 2012, at 8 p.m.

Voters can download the ballot here and send it in. Basically, the entire state of New Jersey was just declared a Military or Overseas Voter, since that’s how those residents cast their ballots. That’s also, apparently, how astronauts vote. Space.com writes:

Astronauts residing on the orbiting lab receive a digital version of their ballot, which is beamed up by Mission Control at the agency’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. Filled-out ballots find their way back down to Earth along the same path.

But while this system might make sense for the relatively small numbers of astronaut, military and overseas voters, there are some big concerns about implementing online voting on a large scale. New Scientist sums up some of the hacking concerns:

Yet the first test of an online voting platform failed spectacularly. In 2010, the District of Columbia tested the system it had commissioned for its school board elections by inviting the public to hack it – normally a federal crime. It took Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and his students, just 36 hours to exploit a vulnerability in the system and “elect” the robot Bender from the TV show Futurama as school board president.

The stunt also raised the spectre of foreign interests launching attacks against online voting systems. While inside the DC school board’s system, Halderman says that he saw attacks from China, Iran and India. “Resisting a state-level attacker is something we don’t know how to do well,” he says.

And those who claim to have solved the vote hacking question, Technology Review writes, probably haven’t:

“Vendors may come and they may say they’ve solved the Internet voting problem for you, but I think that, by and large, they are misleading you, and misleading themselves as well,” Ron Rivest, the MIT computer scientist and cryptography pioneer, said at the symposium. “If they’ve really solved the Internet security and cybersecurity problem, what are they doing implementing voting systems? They should be working with the Department of Defense or financial industry. These are not solved problems there.”

And while right now in New Jersey, where without online voting many of the states residents will be without a voice in this election, the system might make sense, that’s not the case across the board, Rivest told Technology Review:

“I think when we talk about voting over the Internet, my gut reaction says: Why vote over the Internet? Why? Why are you doing this? Why? Really, why? Why? I think you need to ask that question a lot, just like a two-year-old,” he said. “There are other approaches to getting information back and forth that are better, and have better security properties. Voting over the Internet is rarely going to be the best choice. It’s very complicated, and you are asking for trouble. Would you connect your toaster to a high-tension power line? Putting a voting system online is very much like that. Would you invest your pension in credit default swaps? You want to stay away complexity. You want something simple. You are entering a world of attacks and risk that you don’t want to be in.”

So don’t expect online voting to come your way any time soon.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Celebrating 90 Years Since Women Won the Right to Vote
The Vote That Failed

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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