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Elections & Democracy

Technology Can Assist Elections by Scaling Vote-By-Mail

As government leaders, policymakers, and technology companies continue to navigate the global coronavirus pandemic, CDT is actively monitoring the latest responses and working to ensure they are grounded in civil rights and liberties. Our policy teams aim to help leaders craft solutions that balance the unique needs of the moment, while still respecting and upholding individual human rights. Find more of our work at

Any proposed technical solutions to election infrastructure must be carefully scrutinized for their potential impacts on privacy and security, as well as reliability and robustness. With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting a critical election year in the United States, many are calling for internet voting in order to keep Americans safe. Add to this moment the increased political activity in the online realm, and we have real potential for negative impacts on our democracy’s election security, including influence over how people vote, compromised election activities, and shifts in the core norms of democracy itself.

At CDT, we aim our election security work at these key issues, namely in the cybersecurity of election systems. This would include taking a careful look at calls for online voting – which, in the best case scenario, would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve, and would undermine important principles of secure voting. Doing that on the current timeline for the 2020 elections would be impossible.

Last May, CDT submitted written testimony to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) on its latest revision of the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines (VVSG), an important step in addressing the ever-evolving needs of voters and threats to electronic voting systems. The current guidelines include important protections to preserve the integrity of every vote cast by every voter, including voters with accessibility needs – but they are a far cry from being a complete solution. While improving electronic voting systems is important, there are other proposals for ways in which technology can safely assist with elections but that do not go so far as to suggest casting votes from our smartphones.

Indeed, CDT partner and nonprofit VotingWorks was established to take on these proposals, innovate, and make them a reality. In the November 2019 elections, CDT monitored the piloting of a combination of VotingWorks’ new ballot marking devices (BMD), ballot printers, and tabulation scanners in use in Choctaw County, Mississippi. It was a success, and Maurice Turner wrote, “What is even more heartening about this initial success from VotingWorks, is that its solution is a departure from the typical election vendor model. The non-profit uses a combination of open source software and commercial off-the-shelf hardware designed with security, accessibility, and accountability from the start.”

As we saw this year in Wisconsin, and are about to see in Ohio with millions of votes now coming in by mail, the COVID-19 pandemic is going to present challenges to states’ existing systems. For one, fraud risk is increased with mail-in ballots, but this risk can be mitigated if done carefully. Recognizing absentee ballots and vote-by-mail as systems that voters are already turning to, and doing our best to strengthen those systems, is perhaps the best way to ensure an accessible and safe election in November 2020 in which all votes are counted. In this vein, VotingWorks has looked to innovate on vote-by-mail with it’s development of VxMail, a comprehensive set of digital tools to help implement and deploy all the things that small- and medium-sized jurisdictions struggle with but larger ones already are capable of doing: ballot printing, envelope stuffing, mailing, ballot receipt, signature verification, and ballot tabulation.

CDT supports VotingWorks’ efforts to address the U.S. election infrastructure’s needs of the moment, and encourage their work with states and localities to serve all voters in a free and fair election this November. It is too late in the process to secure online voting systems before the November elections. However, five states have been exclusively voting by mail for years, and hundreds of thousands of members of our military securely vote by mail. The security of election infrastructure is paramount to a healthy democracy. We call on election officials from the local to the federal level to work hard to scale their existing vote-by-mail infrastructure.