Why you can’t vote online in 2020

4 min read
Liz Steelman
  •  Sep 16, 2020
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“Can I vote online?” is a common question. According to Google Trends, the query peaked in interest back in March when the rise of Covid converged with the presidential primaries. In the six months since then, interest in the question has been steadily climbing. The US government’s website addresses that, no, you cannot vote online—then provides no further explanation as to why not.

Well, in service of actually answering why we’re not voting online in a year where almost everything else went digital, Inside Design editor Liz Steelman sat down for a lengthy discussion with Dana Chisnell, an election and civic engagement design expert with over 20 years of experience. Not surprisingly, the answer is pretty complex—and speaks to the unique iterative process of the US voting system. Here, their conversation:

Liz Steelman: Anytime I go on Twitter, I see people constantly ask why we can’t hold our national election online—even tech people (and people I think should know better.) So just to get everyone on the same page: Why can’t we?

Dana Chisnell: The short answer is that we can’t vote online because the internet is not a safe and secure place.

People will usually respond, “Well, I can shop online, I can bank online—I can do all these other things online.” But those things aren’t completely safe and secure either. There’s identity theft. People post as other human beings. There are bots that act like humans. If people are worried about impersonation at the polling place, it’s going to be one million times worse online.

Additionally, in banks and e-commerce companies, there’s the idea that dealing with fraud is just a cost of doing business. So if there’s a certain amount of fraud or loss in the company or the system, the company just absorbs it. It’s what you have to do when you’re running a company like that.

But we can’t do that in elections. There’s no tolerance for those kinds of errors or issues—it has to be right to be trusted.

What are some of the safeguards that we have in our regular elections that don’t translate online?

The really simple concept to start with is that we guarantee a secret ballot. It accomplishes a number of issues that protect voters. It was implemented in the United States in the late 1800s with what is called the “Australian” ballot. It was implemented at a time when we went from an agrarian society that worked for themselves or in small cottage industries to the industrial age where people would work in large factories or organizations with influence from bosses, unions, or other folks like that.

By tradition, and in a few states by law, we guarantee a secret ballot. That means there are all kinds of safeguards put in place to ensure that is true. So, for example, you’ll notice that you don’t put your name on your ballot. Your choices cannot be traced back to you.

But, in general, look at ballot design itself. It varies across the United States. There is not one consistent ballot design. That’s a feature. (And, from my point of view, kind of a bug! But that’s a different discussion.)

[If you look at voting by mail,] the entire package has to work for everybody in that ecosystem: voters, election officials, and the Postal Service. It’s not a simple and straightforward thing, but actually a real hard set of problems to deal with. At the core of that is the ballot itself. You want people to be able to mark the ballot without making a mistake, so they can vote the way they intend and their intentions will be counted as they cast their ballot. But it’s not intuitively obvious how to mark a ballot. We’ve seen lots of examples of this out in the world: The senate race in Minnesota where Al Franken was ultimately elected is just one of them. It was contested, so for the recounts, both political parties had to pull their ballots to be reexamined—many of those challenged were vote by mail. The reason is that when you’re voting by yourself, you don’t have the backstop of a couple of things that happen at a polling place. You don’t have a friendly, knowledgeable poll worker who you can ask questions of. Most polling places have a tally machine scanner that gives feedback right away about whether you’ve marked your ballot properly, if you voted too many times in any given contest, etc. You don’t have those advantages when you’re voting by mail. So the stopgap is to add a little bit more information. Often, there will be inserts with the vote by mail packets that show you how to mark the ballot and warn against over voting. A lot of jurisdictions have expanded this little design ecosystem by putting videos on their websites about how to mark the ballot and get your vote by mail back safely so it’s more likely to be counted.

In the case where you do make a mistake or you don’t mark the ballot in the expected way, all the states are required to have a voter intent guidance document. It’s a really great document with images of what the ballot looks like, how voters mark the ballot, and a determination about whether that counts as a vote. It’s one of my favorite election artifacts because you get to see all these real examples from real elections about what gets counted and what doesn’t if there’s any question.


This reminds me about the debate in remote work about how people say there are things in-office that can’t ever be replicated online. But in the pandemic, there’s a mid-state where you’re trying to simulate an in-office experience but in a new remote setting. And then there’s companies like InVision that are fully remote from the beginning. In each setting, there are special considerations—it’s not just a transposal of the in-office experience online. Mail-in voting feels like it’s in this in-between place: It’s not just the in-person voting experience happening at home. It’s an entirely different experience. While taking the voting experience outside of the voting book may seem like progress, it’s not necessarily a step towards online voting.

That’s right. Voting by mail is a band-aid on a process that has existed, as far as I know, since there was a postal service in the United States. But it was meant to be an exception if you could not be at the polling place for whatever reason on Election Day. In some states, you still need a documented reason and to apply for mail-in voting. This always was meant to be a small number of votes and was very much an exception. Honestly, it was probably designed to ensure that people who have privilege continued to keep their privilege.

Now, what we see playing out across the United States is a wide range of how mail-in vote gets implemented. Oregon has had it the longest: A ballot just shows up at your house, and you vote and send it back. People are used to it, and it’s been going on for 25 years. Washington and Colorado are also all vote-by-mail and have similar processes. They mail you a ballot and you either mail it back, or you drop it in an official dropbox.

If you live in Virginia, you have the opposite situation—not only because you’re on the opposite coast. There are 13 possible excuses that qualify you to get an absentee ballot. You have to fill out a form to request it. You have to know where the form is, fill it out, and send it back in time for the deadline. Then the ballot gets mailed to you, you mark the ballot, and send it back. There are a number of steps in there for a couple of states, I think it’s Alabama or South Carolina, where even if you vote by mail, you have a witness that you’re actually voting absentee and you are who you say you are. That’s basically a way to suppress these votes, and most states have eliminated those kinds of steps these days. But this all shows you that it’s meant to be an exception rather than the regular standard operating procedure.

For the 2020 presidential election, we are seeing many more states adopt more use of voting by mail and with looser constraints. I expect that some of those constraints will be reinstated after the presidential election. There will be a lot of churn over the next couple of years about whether to adopt more vote by mail or to go back to normal. Legislators are feeling a lot of pressure right now to make sure that people feel like they can vote safely and in a healthy way. A bunch of states—six or eight—are making temporary rule changes. I don’t think this is a thread you can pull straight through to online voting.

For what it’s worth, a whole lot of people have been trying to work for a really long time on how we might be able to vote online safely and securely. Every experiment on the planet has been hacked. People love to talk about Estonia—this little walled garden with a culture that allows for a lot of community and state supported social government. (It’s absolutely great and a lovely place. If you ever get to visit Tallinn, you should totally do it.) But Estonia has claimed to run their elections completely online for a very long time, at one point saying it was totally secure. But a few years ago, a team of academics studying election security did indeed hack the Estonian online voting system.

If you are willing to open up the possibility that somebody could change the outcome of an election in exchange for allowing people to vote online, then I guess we could try that direction, but I am not there yet.

I was going to ask if it’s a global issue or only a US issue, but it seems like it’s probably more of a technology issue. No one is creating an entirely new way of building websites—it’s all built on the same language for the most part, and anyone able to speak that language is able to contribute to it. But that also means that in any new invention, people will be able to figure it out. (It reminds me of eavesdropping in that way.) 

You also touched upon this earlier that the US has an infrastructure issue due to having so many states and allowing everyone to run elections differently. There are no consistent inputs. Essentially you’re designing against a number of different edge cases, due to different cultures and policies. You’d probably even need different directions for certain states. It seems like the first step towards online voting in the United State would have to be in a small local election. But that probably isn’t going to happen because there’s an issue there, too: Local elections probably don’t have the resources or infrastructure to build a secure online polling system. How has this been discussed as an issue in the election community?

There have been a number of experiments on online voting in hyper local situations, like neighborhood associations or school board elections. This can work. When you have a neighborhood association election, for example, you know all of the voters. There’s no secret ballot, really. You’re authenticating to a system that’s closed within the neighborhood association. That’s the key. If we were to set up robust authentication and identification systems for your login and say, “I am a voter. I am this person,” then that sacrifices the secret ballot, but you’d get to vote online. That authentication record and that voter record is practically impossible to separate. So until somebody figures that out, it’s probably not going to work.

The other thing I worry about in terms of online voting is that not everybody is online. This is definitely a privilege situation and it’s very uneven. I just came off of working on a lot of stuff around people applying for unemployment. In many states, California being an example I worked with, 40% of all initial claims came in on small devices. But many of those states’ websites are not responsive to small devices. When you develop your voting system online, you have to take all of these things into account. And what do you do for people who don’t even have internet access? Do you leave them out? Are you going to create some other mechanism for them to take part?

A situation we’re facing right now: People in nursing homes and other facilities can’t have visitors right now. Historically, election officials put together mobile polling places to take to those folks. This year, they’re not going to be allowed to do that. Even if online voting existed, it wouldn’t be an option for many of those people for a variety of reasons, not least accessibility for people with disabilities. Many of them have devices, but they may not be willing to trust the technology enough to do an act like voting on a device like that. It would have to be incredibly—practically infinitely—usable and accessible, which is a pretty high bar.

A New Yorker article talked about Florida voting this year—which is always an interesting subject. I was listening to it via Audm (so good!) and my ears perked up because they mentioned “election design” not once but twice—first in Bush V. Gore and then in Scott V. Nelson, where thousands of votes in that race weren’t cast because of the design of the ballot (the senate race had been buried at the bottom of the first column under many directions). Thinking about the distant future—there’s obviously a lot to be worked out re online voting, but another thing this touches on is that we just don’t have the user experience research like we do in paper ballots. Paper ballots are such an iterative process—how would we be able to pack in a hundred or so years of UX research into creating a digital product when we don’t have any experiences with it yet. You’ve referred to a certain amount of studies, but has there been interest in creating this perfect use, all-inclusive voting experience? Or what have been the constraints around research?

There probably has been in design schools and various places, but I haven’t seen it. There are digital ballot marking devices now that are super usable. They’re built to be accessible and many of them are absolutely excellent. Voters love them, but you have to use them at the polling place. The Los Angeles voting system project calls it their Voting Solutions for All People. They’ve been in development for six or seven years, but this will be their first general election using the system. One of the features for this ecosystem for voting, outside where you mark your ballot itself, is an app that you can download onto your phone where you can practice that ballot. You can also mark your ballot and then take your phone into the vote center and a code gets scanned and it pulls up onto the screen. You could look at these steps as prototypes on the way to getting to online voting. I don’t think the usability and accessibility of the interface is the insurmountable problem. There are ways to address inaccessibility. They may not be elegant or perfect, but you can reach most people with enough time and resources. I think the security of the system is the biggest problem. How do you design an internet that has zero tolerance for hacking into somebody’s voting record?

What a perfect segue to another question I have: I think a lot of people take for granted the complexities of the voting system. Even though voting itself is still an analog process, there’s probably been so many new technologies implemented that we totally overlook. What are some signs of voting’s “digital transformation”? 

So one of the things that comes to mind immediately is marking a paper ballot. It has bubbles or boxes that you’re supposed to fill in. Until very recently, if you look at an example ballot, you can see that there are marks in the margins, those are registration marketing targets. They’re called that because they have to line up for the scanning system to see if there’s something to count, versus a stray mark or a person resting their pen in a place that’s not in a bubble or box.

But scanners now have evolved to take an image of the entire ballot and use page coordinates on the ballot card instead of needing these registration marks. This leaves a lot more flexibility in terms of design because the spatial constraint is different. You can fit more contests on a regular-sized ballot card. You can mess with the line spacing, for example, and make things more readable than they might be otherwise because you can do more in the way of correcting placement of the target in relation to proximity to the candidates’ name or the description of the ballot measure. Before, you were just at the mercy of the engineer who did the product design in the voting system. There are some very unsexy things like that that have come into elections.

Another really big thing: States have had voter registration databases for a long time. But electronic poll books are a fairly new innovation. Their elegance, or lack thereof, certainly ranges depending on all kinds of factors. But this gives us a little bit more in the way of up-to-date data about who’s eligible to vote. For example, if you get a question about whether or not someone has already submitted their absentee ballot when they show up at the polling place, the data can be updated (in some states) as of midnight the night before. It’s much easier to track whether somebody has already voted and which ballot is valid. There are some very nice things around ensuring integrity that have been part of the modernization of elections over the last several years.

It’s almost like these improvements are getting us closer to the Platonic ideal of a democratic election. Whether or not we will ever hit that is a question, but what you’re saying seems to be that the goal around these modernizations is to get us to the most fair election possible, not necessarily help bring elections to the front edge of technology. Almost like, “How can we create a more perfect voting process?” 

That’s a very nice way of putting it. In my experience, election officials and people who administer elections are actually very cautious about implementing new technology. There are so many moving parts to putting on an election that you really don’t want to risk any single one of them failing. If they don’t feel like they can control it or understand it well, then it’s always going to be better to go back to paper in terms of running a free, fair, secure election. We know from design that whenever you introduce some new technology or feature, you risk breaking something else. That’s not a position that anybody in elections really wants to be in.

That’s a really interesting point. We have a concept of design maturity, the idea that the more design-forward a company is, the further their definition of design is from simply aesthetics and the more they think of it as a business lever or a design function. Back in June, I interviewed Chan Williams, who worked at Planned Parenthood and also did some pro bono work for gender-affirmation causes. We were talking about how, with the internet, you would think that the best product would be something beautiful and interesting to disperse needed information. But Chan said, actually, because there’s so much at stake for the populations who need that information, most of the time the thing that works best for them is a very clinical-looking pamphlet. That’s been a really interesting thing to chew on: The spectrum of quality and how we ensure technological innovation and its beneficial ease for all in the future, but also knowing that right now, analog things that people can hold and cannot be taken away from them is what they need. Do you think this results from the systems in which we are building these technologies and that they haven’t considered these needs in mind, or is it a technological issue?

To come back to Bush v. Gore, for those who aren’t acquainted with the history: What happened was because of ballot design. In several Florida counties, people did not vote the way they intended and the separation between George Bush and Al Gore as presidential candidates in Florida came down to a difference of around 500-600 votes. What happens in the election administration process at that point is that either party may request a recount. There are also different laws and different rules about what might trigger a recount automatically in different states. But in this case, there were lawsuits being volleyed back and forth. There were at least two recounts, maybe three, before the case made it to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court threw out the third recount, I think, in Palm Beach County, Florida, which ultimately made George Bush the winner of the election. Nothing had ever happened like this in American history, but the recount process is so incredibly important. So this is another reason that online voting is problematic: Not just because of the security issues, but also if there’s a question about how the election went. How do you do a recount without physical ballots that can be recounted against a technological system? We basically have a double entry bookkeeping system where we can see if these numbers match those numbers. That helps people understand the outcome of an election and feel more trust in the system overall.

In the continuum, there are people who think we should be voting online but also people who say we should only be using hand-marked paper ballots. There are questions of how ballots can be manipulated. We need to have ways to do recounts that are open, transparent, and available for public witness.

Speaking of witnessing: Last time we spoke, you talked about how becoming a poll worker was one of the best things a designer can do. I’d love to hear a little bit more on your thoughts on that. 

Well, anytime you get to directly observe a design in its natural environment and see how people interact with it, it’s just an amazing gift. While you don’t get to see how people react specifically to the ballot when working their polls because you can’t watch them over their shoulders, you do get to see how the whole ecosystem plays out. You see how people come in, check in, get processed in the poll book and counted, and how they cast the ballot. You get to see how the experience is different for every single person, and yet exactly the same. One of the great things about being a poll worker, besides just getting to meet your neighbors and voters who are not like you, is that you also get to meet your fellow poll workers. Some of them will be wildly dedicated to the process, having done this many times before. Others will be brand new to it. That patriotic, civic duty feeling is kind of great and you’re not going to get that in any other situation as a designer—seeing how the parts come together in this brief experience. It’s kind of magical and there’s no way I know of to duplicate that without doing it in a real election.

For the 2020 presidential election, it is extremely important that young, healthy people sign up to be poll workers. You are desperately needed. Typically, poll workers are older folks because they’re retired and have the time, but they’re also at very high risk of getting Covid. Election administrators are setting up polling places for social distancing with hand sanitizer all over the place and other extra special measures to make sure nobody’s put in danger while they’re at the polling place. If you can’t vote by mail, you should be able to do it safely in a healthy way. That’s going to add an extra layer to a design researcher doing an ethnographic voting study on election day: Who are the people who show up? Why is it important that there was a place for them to come? And why is this election different from previous elections or possibly future elections?

Is there anything else that you feel like designers can lend their hands to this election season.

Yes. You can help make sure that your friends and neighbors apply for vote-by-mail ballots, that they know what the deadlines are. Buy a book of stamps and share them with everyone you know—slip a stamp under every door in your apartment building. Some states’ return envelopes are paid for, but a lot are not.

Help your friends, family, and neighbors make sure they’re registered to vote. There are a lot of really great ways to do that online now—Vote.gov is my favorite starting point. Designers might look for places where people might need more help, so making yourself available at food banks and homeless shelters, or to mutual aid groups to help make sure everybody has the information they need so they can vote will be incredibly helpful.

I also just want to say, any time someone says out loud, “There’s an obvious solution to this. How hard could it possibly be?” The answer probably is very hard, or somebody would have done it before. If you want to come back to voting online on the public internet: A lot of really smart people have been trying to do this for a really long time. Nobody’s found a good, safe, secure, free, fair way to do that. So stay tuned—I’ll see you in 15 years when I’m still answering that question.


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