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King County and WA Secretary of State clash over online voting system

I Voted Sticker Unsplash Josh Carter
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King County says it’s offering the country’s first completely online election with the aim of boosting voter turnout.

The state's top election official says she wasn’t consulted, however, and believes online systems are vulnerable and could jeopardize public confidence in elections.

The online ballots are for a board member in the King Conservation District. It's the first step in in a move toward using smartphones, tablets, and computers for voting. Partners in the project say they’ll soon be announcing more online voting programs in other jurisdictions in Washington state.

King County unveiled the new system Thursday when it was already live: if you’re a voter in the King Conservation District (which includes most of King County), you can go to the district’s website and vote by entering your name and date of birth, and providing a signature with your mouse or touch screen.

Bryan Finney is the founder of Democracy Live, which developed the system. He said his technology has been used in other states for military and overseas voters, as well as voters with disabilities. But this is the first time it’s been offered to the general voting population – in this case 1.2 million voters.

“The unique thing about this particular election: it’s the largest mobile election in the history of the country,” Finney said. “Voters are going to be able to access their ballot, sign their name on their smart pad, then return the ballot electronically.”

caption: Democracy Live CEO Bryan Finney shows a sample online ballot. His firm developed the system for King County.
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Democracy Live CEO Bryan Finney shows a sample online ballot. His firm developed the system for King County.
KUOW/Amy Radil

Voters have the option to print their ballot and return it via mail or drop box. If they transmit the ballot electronically, Finney said county officials will still print ballots on paper to tabulate them. The system is hosted in the cloud by Amazon’s AWS. Finney said elections officials will check that voter signatures match what the county has on file.

Previously, King County required voters to request a ballot to vote for the King Conservation District’s volunteer board of supervisors, because the election schedule doesn’t coincide with established primary and general elections. Turnout was extremely low, around 1%.

Advocates for both environmental groups and people with disabilities praised the online balloting, which they said would boost public awareness of local conservation efforts, and make voting more accessible. Finney said the system will get younger voters involved.

“Their language is mobile,” he said.

Concerns over online voting

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said that while she doesn't have authority over conservation district elections, she’s concerned about the risks involved. She points to a fraught political atmosphere where public confidence is key.

“My recommendation quite honestly, at this point knowing the technology and risks, is that we wait and give it more time,” Wyman said. “Right now with the profile of this election year and all the things that are happening, I just would like counties to be cautious and thoughtful in how they move forward.”

“From my perspective as an elections administrator, it’s harder to defend a completely electronic ballot,” she said. “And that’s the part for me that has always been difficult, is tell me how I’m going to instill that same level of confidence that I can do with a paper ballot.”

In recent years, Washington state has allowed ballots to be emailed to military and overseas voters, and returned by fax or email. But Wyman said she’s concerned about email attachments introducing ransomware or malware into county election systems.

“It’s not a secure transmission method,” she said.

Wyman has proposed legislation to curtail the use of email and fax for ballot returns, and return to transmitting overseas ballots purely by mail. She said both the Washington National Guard and League of Women Voters testified in support of the change this week, due to the security concerns.

Democracy Live’s Bryan Finney agreed with Wyman that sending ballots as email attachments presents too many risks. He said his online system purposely moves away from email.

Finney also emphasized that ballots are being transmitted, but not tabulated, online.

“This is just an improvement over emailing and attachment or faxing a ballot back and forth,” he said. “All the tabulation, the actual counting of the ballots, is done on paper, the same way it’s done today, so you can go back and do a hand physical recount if necessary or required.”

But as NPR reported, security experts say the risk is in the ballot “crossing the internet” in the first place, before elections officials print it out. According to King County’s partners in the online election system, “OmniBallot utilizes AWS Object Lock to ensure immutable document (ballot) storage. The voter’s ballot selections are encrypted and securely stored in AWS.”

While Amazon is known in Seattle for its record-setting campaign spending in local elections, Finney said AWS is one of a handful of vendors that are certified by federal agencies as providing secure storage.

Wyman said she knows the push for online voting will continue.

“I know Pierce County has expressed an interest in wanting to do something like this,” she said. “It’s sort of a gray area in statute.”

She said she’d support a prohibition in state law not just on email and fax transmission of ballots, but a ban on “any kind of electronic ballot return, and just take it completely off the table.”

But meanwhile both candidates on the online ballot for the King Conservation District board say they like that voters can use their smartphones to cast ballots in this race for a (volunteer) position.

Stephen ‘Dutch’ Deutschman is a retired air cargo manager. He said he’s “happy to be part of this new voting venture.” Deutschman said it is “something worthwhile to get the vote out and make voting more interesting and easier. So yes, I totally back this initiative.”

Deutschman has lived in rural King County for four decades, and is running because “we need someone that lives in the rural environment to give a voice to its citizens and most importantly to the preservation and quality of its resources.”

Chris Porter works in pharmaceutical sales and is also a beekeeper. Porter already served as associate supervisor for the district in 2019. He says he supported launching this pilot, which he hopes will lead to more voter turnout.

“I'm excited by that and the company, Democracy Live, that is managing the electronic vote ... kept talking about this being a spotlight test to see how this vote by phone goes,” Porter said.

"Democracy only works if [people are] fully engaged,” he said. “And conservation is more important now than I think ever.”

The voters in the King Conservation District have until February 11 to cast and sign their electronic ballots.

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