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Democracy and Debate / Understanding the Issues

Absentee Voting

Absentee voting has been a highly-debated topic in this 2020 election season. This video, from the Security Digital Democracy MOOC, discusses how absentee voting works in America, and when absentee voting should be used.

Excerpt From


There's one last aspect related to human factors that I want to talk about today. And, this encompasses aspects both of, usability and of human factors.

This is the idea that, since voters are, are people, they have to somehow get to the polling place in order to be involved in the standard kinds of voting processes we've talked about. And there's an alternative to that though, the way to make accommodations for voters who can't get there. And, this is the idea of absentee voting.

So why might voters not be able to make it to the polls? There are a number of things that are commonly accepted by election jurisdictions as excuses, things like the voter is sick or hospitalized or immobilized. Maybe the voter is traveling and, just not in the jurisdiction where the election is taking place on election day. Or maybe the voter is stationed in the military and is out of the area, perhaps even abroad.

In 22 states, excuses like these are required. But 28 states allow absentee voting without any kind of excuse. And both excused and non-excused absentee voting or systems that have been adopted in many other countries.

So if whether an excuse is required or not, there are several forms that an absentee voting accommodation could take. One form is called early voting. And this just means we're going to allow the voter to show up at the poll some number of days before the scheduled election.

Now, this has some security implications, because for instance with DREs that means that we have to be supervising the machines in the field in order to assure a chain of custody for a much longer period of time. That same precaution applies of course to paper ballot boxes as well. Someone has to be supervising them if they're going to be available for early voting.

Another possible accommodation is voting by proxy. In many places, you can appoint someone else to cast your vote for you. Now, of course, this has both integrity concerns because you have to trust that person to actually vote the way you asked them to, and ballot secrecy concerns since you're telling someone else how you intend to vote.

Finally, there's a third class, and this is probably the most common, and this is called remote voting. Remote voting takes many different forms, but the one that most of us know best is postal voting, or vote by mail. Vote by mail means that you're going to receive a ballot, probably in the mail addressed to your registered address, you fill it out at home and either mail it back or drop it off. Most states allow vote by mail for, for absentee voting but it, it turned out that in some states where, it turns out that in some states where vote by mail is allowed without an excuse it's gotten very popular.

Something like 30 percent of California ballots in recent elections have been submitted via postal voting. But two states, Washington and Oregon, took things a step further. Voters in those states decided that they'd like to make the, almost the entire election process take place by mail. And so vote by mail is essentially the method of voting that almost everybody uses in both of those states.

There are a few reasons why voters wanted to do this. One was that vote by mail is thought to be more convenient since you can do it from home and you don't have to go to a polling place, etcetera. But maybe the, the, argument that most resonated with civic minded people was the belief that allowing universal vote by mail would increase voter turnout.

Now that both states have had several election cycles, to, to look at this, and, and see what the effects have been. We can look back and ask whether voter turnout actually increased. The signs are mixed. Oregon initially had a spike but then things seemed to level off and return to their earlier levels. Washington State also has seen mixed results, so perhaps actually the jury is still out on whether vote by mail as a universal voting system actually does have a positive effect on turnout in the long-run.

Vote by mail, however, also has security implications. And let me give you an example of a way a system like this might work, so you can try to figure some of those out for yourself. So, the voter fills out their ballot at home after receiving it in the mail. And it comes with a set of two nested envelopes. The ballot goes directly into an inner privacy envelope. And then that privacy envelope is sealed, and put into an outer mailing envelope that's addressed to the election officials, and is signed by the voter. So the signed outer envelope is what the election officials use to make sure that the voter was entitled to cast a vote. But the inner privacy envelope isn't opened until the ballots have been shuffled and it's time to count them. This provides some amount of privacy from the election officials so they can't just look at every ballot and see the name on it, for instance, and see who voted.

But there's still security concerns even with this system. So let's see if you can figure some of them out. Try to think for yourself what could go wrong.

Vote by mail raises a number of security concerns especially when it's practiced so widely as in many US states. One concern is ballot misdirection. As we saw in an earlier lecture if an attacker can change the voter's registered address and cause their ballot to be delivered somewhere else, that can potentially disenfranchise voters or be used even to steal their votes. Another issue is theft of blank ballots. Even if your ballot is delivered to the correct address, it could be stolen out of your mailbox or out of the mail system. Another question is whether the va-, the ballot that you voted is going to make it back to the election officials. You could imagine a dishonest letter carrier discarding ballots from a neighborhood that would be likely to vote for a certain candidate based on demographics for instance.

Another issue is vote buying. Since your ballot is blank, you just need to sign the outer envelope. You could sign it and then sell the blank ballot and envelope to a criminal. This is something that vote by mail makes super easy.

Finally, probably the biggest risk is coercion. The problem with vote by mail is you, you don't have any privacy when you're filling out the ballot. We can imagine several scenarios where this might come into play. One could be coercion in the workplace if an employer asks their employees to come into work and fill out the ballots in front of them, and then they could mail them right from the workplace. Another scenario could be coercion in the home. A parent or a spouse could ask you to fill out the ballot, or just watch you fill out the ballot, and then have potentially negative consequences from that. So vote by mail provides very, very weak privacy guarantees in terms of the secret ballot.

Sure having a privacy envelope inside the envelope with your identity on it protects you against the election officials for instance. But it doesn't provide a strong guarantee that you won't be coerced or you won't sell your vote. So vote by mail is useful for, for increasing convenience perhaps but some voters really don't have a choice. And for voters who are living far outside the jurisdiction for instance even standard vote by mail can be a concern. Think about people who are living in foreign countries or people who are in the military in very remote places, the mail system might just be to slow to get the ballots to them in time.

One, one reason for, for there being a fairly tight time window is that, in some jurisdictions the names that are going to appear on the ballot aren't even known until some number of weeks before the final election.

This is the case in some US jurisdictions, and their, their primaries for their primary elections, for instance. The primary isn't decided until a fairly small number of weeks before the general election. So they can't just print out the ballots many months in advance and mail them out to overseas voters. So how can we accommodate overseas voters for whom the mail system is too slow. Some jurisdictions have attempted things like allowing voters in an emergency, if there's no other way to send back their ballots by fax or by e-mail. Now fax and e-mail have all of the same problems essentially as postal voting and then some.

With a fax machine, you have to worry about you have to worry about whether someone is going to coerce you beforehand. And then you have to worry about whether the fax is going to arrive intact. And then you have to worry especially about privacy concerns because there's no way to easily make this kind of nested envelope structure with a fax, someone's just going to see what's written on the pages. They're going to have to take precautions and you're going to have to trust the election officials to be honest about the way they're treating your vote when it comes back.

E-mail is probably the least secure voting method possible. If you're voting by e-mail you have to deal with all of the problems we've already mentioned with coercion and with perhaps faulty transmission and with lack of privacy but it's not just privacy between you privacy after your vote gets there. E-mail is typically sent over the internet completely unencrypted. That means that anyone who's watching the transmissions coming from your computer can also see how you voted. It means that perhaps anyone else who uses that computer is going to get to see the e-mail in your out box. Someone who's in between you and the other end of the network. Someone who's able to, to mount what we call a man in the middle attack might even be able to change the message on the wire and change your vote. So e-mail has an incredible list of problems. In fax and e-mail both because of all of these problems should really only be used as a last resort measure of getting a vote back.

So what else can we do to help overseas voters vote more easily? One system that makes a lot of sense is to allow voters to receive a blank ballot online, print it out wherever they are, and then send it back by mail. Since the ballot can be received and printed the first day it's available, it doesn't have to go through the slow postal system on the way to the voter. And this is likely to cut the time it takes an overseas voter to vote in, in half, since the ballot only has to go through the postal system once instead of twice.

So this is just a common sense approach. And according to numbers I've seen about military voters, this is good enough for, for probably at least 99 percent of military voters overseas to get their ballots back in time.

So I want to leave you with a question that comes up in the context of vote by mail, vote by fax, vote by e-mail. The question is... The question has to do with the, the, the strong secret ballot protections that we expect at the polling place, that is not being able to prove to someone how you voted even if you wanted to. And you remember that this protects where, this is the strongest protection we have against things like coercion and vote selling. The question should...

The question is, "If voters want to give up that ability, should they be allowed to waive it?"

Should you be allowed to waive the secret ballot and send back a vote by mail, by e-mail, by fax, if you want to? So this is a question we can discuss in the forums. In the next lecture, I'm going to tell you about internet voting. So stay tuned to hear more about what could go wrong in remote voting scenarios.