The ubiquity of online life comes with devastating vulnerabilities. Even one of the world’s richest men, Jeff Bezos, is reportedly not safe from hackers of electronic devices.
Despite this well-established risk, Washington elections officials are moving in disjointed directions about internet security. In Olympia, Secretary of State Kim Wyman wants to bar emailed ballot returns because of potential fraud and network tampering via attachment. In King County, Elections Director Julie Wise is aiding a local public agency’s experiment with online voting.
The King County move is a badly flawed approach to broadening elections access. Washington’s elections must — without exception — be kept safe from online tampering. The best way to do this is to keep elections computers entirely off the internet.
House Bill 2647 and Senate Bill 6412 are Wyman’s request legislation that would ban returning ballots by email. The proposal would close a vulnerability without meaningfully limiting access for military and overseas voters. Their current extended voting window of 30 or 45 days to download, print and return ballots reasonably allows for international postal delays.
The King County move, however, eradicates the protective barrier between the internet and Washington elections. From Wednesday until Feb. 11, voters in the King Conservation District can use internet-connected computers, tablets and smartphones to choose a board member for the obscure agency.
By government standards, the stakes are low. The conservation district’s 35 employees encourage private landowners to practice conservation voluntarily. Its unpaid supervisors are routinely chosen by a sliver of the 1.2 million eligible voters in elections the district runs independently, sometimes with King County assistance counting and checking ballots.
This impractical setup gives the district only bad options. Its $7.8 million budget cannot reasonably provide the $1 million-plus cost of sending ballots for its elections. It has provided ballots on request in the past. Minuscule participation resulted.
Wise said Wednesday she had worked with the district for about a year to find a better idea. The online experiment — Wyman said she was not consulted — may be the worst yet.
Online voting has an inherent equity issue. People who can afford tablets and smartphones have greater access than those who must trudge to a library. The potential for compromising an online vote is even more significant. Manipulation must be found and undone before unfairly elected candidates take office. Voter confusion also arises when different elections follow different rules.
Neither Wise nor Wyman, who only learned of the district’s plans this week, controls how the King Conservation District, or other special districts, conduct elections. A bill that would bring districts under state election law will be heard by the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Relations Friday. Potential effects on these special districts should be studied closely. In any case, the Legislature must block other agencies from following the King Conservation District down the unsafe path to the online ballot box.