Many people are surprised to learn that any voter in Washington State can vote via email. Most assume that option is limited to service voters and those overseas. But just because we can (currently), that doesn’t mean we should.The LWVWA has been working with legislators, the Secretary of State, and cybersecurity experts to raise awareness about the cybersecurity concerns of returning ballots over email. Kirstin Mueller, the LWVWA Election Security Chair, organized a meeting for this group and other public policy decision-makers in which she demonstrated how easy it is to hack an email and literally change which candidate gets someone’s vote. Almost everyone in the room was stunned at how quickly and easily this could be done.
A recent Seattle Times article brought attention to Washington's response to the threat of election hacking or interference. Many laudable steps are being taken by Secretary Wyman including working with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and partnering with Washington’s Air National Guard to test for weaknesses and detect any intrusions into their network. Washington is also utilizing federal funding to expand the cybersecurity capabilities within the secretary of state’s office.
The article points out that Washington has work to do to improve election security, including the practice of email ballot return. Kirstin Mueller responded with a letter to the editor to outline concerns with email ballot return.
What is email ballot return?
Email ballot return is attaching a voted ballot to an email, then emailing the ballot to a designated county elections email address in order to vote.
Is email ballot return a common practice in the US?
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia allow for some form of email ballot return. A couple of states restrict this practice to military stationed outside the US receiving imminent danger pay. Idaho allows those citizens directly affected by national or local states of emergency to email return their ballot. Washington is the only state that allows any voter to return their ballot via email attachment.
What are the email ballot return laws and rules in Washington?
Based on the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) all voters in Washington can return their voted ballot to their county auditor via an email attachment prior to 8pm on election day. Voters who are overseas or military do not have to additionally mail in their physical paper ballot. All other voters must mail in their physical paper ballot prior to election certification in order for their vote to be tabulated. There does not need to be an emergency for a voter to return their ballot via email.
What happens if a voter doesn’t mail in their paper ballot after emailing their ballot?
If a non-military, non-overseas voter doesn’t mail in their paper ballot prior to election certification after emailing their ballot, then their vote will not count. Different counties have ways they reach out to voters to educate them on the need for the paper ballot including phone calls, letters, and emails.The rate of return of the paper ballot varies widely by county.
What are some of the security concerns with returning a ballot by email?
Email is an insecure method of transmitting a marked ballot across the Internet. Email is not encrypted, therefore ballots can be intercepted, deleted, and modified in transit by a number of different mechanisms without either the voter or the election official knowing. In addition, when election officials download ballot file attachments, the attachments can carry malware into an election network.
Does email ballot return ensure voter privacy or anonymity?
Email returned ballots are not encrypted, and can be vulnerable to inspection. For example, if an emailed ballot is sent from a work email, some employers reserve the right to monitor incoming and outgoing email. Some states require voters to sign an affidavit waiving the anonymity of their votes if they choose to email their voted ballots, although a waiver is not utilized in Washington. When an emailed ballot is received by an election official, the ballot will be printed out and it is highly difficult, if not impossible, to maintain separation of the voter’s signature page from their ballot during this process. Also, for non-military/non-overseas voters, the email returned ballot must be kept associated with the voter’s name until the physical paper ballot is received.
The LWVWA supports and encourages voters to vote via a paper ballot, if at all possible. Paper ballots are the safest and most reliable way to ensure votes are counted as cast in addition to maintaining voter privacy. The paper ballot allows voters to verify that their vote accurately reflects their intent, and provides a physical record for audits and recounts.
Would you like to help us make elections more secure in Washington state? Or do you have election security questions? Please contact Kirstin Mueller, LWVWA Election Security Chair.
Additional election security reading can be found here.