Last night’s failure of the smartphone application used by the Iowa Democratic Party illustrated in harsh relief exactly why we should not use voting technology that is internet connected. The Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) initially wanted to employ a smartphone app to allow voters to cast their selections over the Internet. Fortunately, smarter heads prevailed and the IDP pivoted to an app designed to aggregate the totals from each precinct which means that the totals from each caucus meeting were first recorded on paper, allowing the IDP to transparently and reliably reconstruct the results from paper records. 

Iowa dodged a bullet and with some extra time, will be able to determine the winner of the caucuses but this disaster should focus attention on the fact that 32 states currently allow voting over the internet for some voters including disabled, military and overseas voters. In 2018 over 150,000 ballots were cast online. We expect even more ballots to be cast online in 2020 and all of those votes will be vulnerable to hacking, corruption or disruption and, unlike Iowa, there is no backup. 

It’s a matter of agreement and settled science that online voting is too insecure for public, government elections. In 2017, after it became known that Russian agents were aiming to hack into the election systems of western democracies, France and Norway promptly abandoned online voting yet the U.S. has done nothing to address this gaping security hole. There has been no leadership from federal entities like the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to warn State election administrators and lawmakers that online voting is dangerously insecure. In the absence of any guidance, some States and territories are actually looking to expand online voting. 

We are facing an election security crisis. We can no longer put our heads in the sand and ignore the severe risks to the integrity of our elections introduced by online voting. Even though the IDP can reconstruct and recover from the failure in Iowa, this fiasco has damaged the credibility of Iowa’s elections and has shaken voter confidence. A similar debacle could be repeated in an election but without paper records, that could throw an election result into question. Now is the time for all States that allow online voting to take emergency actions and end this dangerously insecure practice.

Furthermore, the Iowa debacle further highlights the necessity of hand marked paper ballots. Based on what we know so far, Iowa’s problems involved electronic reporting and tabulation—that is, entering and transmitting the results from each precinct to a central computer for final tabulation—but Iowans at least have the original hand-marked vote counts for each precinct. The existence of those hand-marked paper results makes a recount possible. If the voting itself had taken place through similarly unreliable electronic means, then a recount would not be able to cure the unreliable original data. Yet many voters in states around the country, including 2020 battleground states, are required to use insecure, unreliable “direct recording electronic” or “ballot marking device” voting machines. Election and technical experts agree that hand marked paper ballots are the most reliable and secure voting system, and are critical to a free and fair election.