This is the full transcript for season 5, episode 6 of the Quartz Obsession podcast on online voting.
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Scott: Hey Shivank. How’s it going?
Shivank: Hey Scott.
Scott: What’d you watch in Belgium growing up?
Shivank: Uh, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, of course.
Scott: That is Belgian TV at its finest. I never watched that show growing up, but I always wanted to live in a hotel. I was not like a Disney Channel kid, by any means, I was definitely a Nickelodeon kid.
Shivank: I loved when they would do, like, a crossover episode. It would be like Hannah Montana and Suite Life, like, together. I’d be like, “Whoa, my worlds are just colliding.”
Scott: Has anyone listened to the new Miley Cyrus album? I’ve just heard the song.
Shivank: Yeah. My friend said the song “Flowers,” like, describes me.
Shivank: Because I’m, like, very content on my own.
Scott: You can buy yourself flowers.
Shivank: I can buy myself flowers. I buy myself ramen all the time.
Scott: [sings] “Write my name in the soup.”
My colleague Shivank Taksali has a lot of the same cultural touchpoints that I do, between TV shows and ramen, but a key difference in our upbringing is that he grew up in Belgium and moved to New York just a few years ago.
He’s lived in a bunch of different places and speaks six languages.
Shivank: Um, English, French, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, and Dutch. And I do a Barack Obama impression. That’s my seventh.
Scott: Give me a little bit of Obama.
Shivank: [sounding remarkably like Barack Obama] Uh, OK. OK, Scott!
Scott: That’s not bad!
Shivank: [still as Barack Obama] You know, my wife Michelle has a podcast too! [as himself] Should we just, like, do a part that’s like, “Oh, now we have the 44th president talking about online voting!”
Scott: As much as I’d like to make Shivank do…
Shivank: [as Barack Obama] “My fellow Americans…”
Scott: …for this whole episode, we’re not talking about how we impersonate presidents today. We’re talking about how we elect them. I’m Scott Nover, the host of the Quartz Obsession, where we’re taking a closer look at the technologies and innovations that might someday change our lives.
Today online voting.
Shivank, tell me about yourself.
Shivank: I am the platform strategist at Quartz, where I help amplify our storytelling on platforms such as this podcast, email newsletters, and the web.
Scott: And as I understand, you’ve always been kind of interested in how we vote in America. Tell me about how that interest came to be.
Shivank: Sure thing. So, I grew up in Belgium where I’ve always seen my parents participate in the process and it never seemed like something of a big deal probably because we’re a small country in the EU, so it was never that consequential. But when I moved here at 17 to go to college, you know, the first election I witnessed was 2016, which, obviously, it seemed very high stakes, followed by the 2020.
So when I came to the US, I saw so much energy and enthusiasm around getting out the vote.
Scott: What was it about it that kind of energized you itself?
Voter turnout in US elections
Shivank: I think the first thing I was surprised by was how long the election cycle is. Like the fact that there were debates happening every month, and the candidates went from like 10 to five to three… it just dominated the social media, the headlines, and, like, people were actually talking about it, which wasn’t the case back home.
Scott: And your interest in US elections led you to pitch us a story about online voting. Your take was that American voting turnout is really low. The Pew Research Center puts it at about 63% in the last presidential election.
And you thought that if people didn’t have to travel or take time off or wait in long lines to vote, participation would go up. And my response was, “Online voting is not going to solve the problems we have around elections in the United States.” So when we first started thinking about this episode, we were in two very different places.
I’m wondering where you are now.
Shivank: Through my research, I have learned that there are significant obstacles in online voting becoming a mainstream tool in future elections. I’ve definitely become more clear-eyed about the prospect of online voting becoming widely adopted in the United States. I think the perspective I had initially was kind of optimism that this is a way to dramatically make voting more convenient, more accessible, and perhaps even more reliable.
You know, because you can reduce human error involved if you’re just kind of using a digital tool, but the more I found out, the more I saw that none of these platforms are foolproof. There’s no single system that’s not vulnerable right now to malware or cyber attacks, for example. Even Estonia, which we talk about as the pioneer, even they might be prone to cyber attacks.
Scott: Tell me about Estonia pioneering online voting.
Internet voting in Estonia
Shivank: So Estonians have been using internet voting since 2005 in legally binding federal elections, and every citizen has a physical ID card with a microchip, which then allows them to enter a unique PIN that also contains their digital signature. So this allows them to securely access the platform that allows them to access a whole suite of functions, such as casting their vote.
In the elections, this year, they hit a milestone where over 50% of the votes were cast via their internet system. So that’s a huge milestone, but it also shows that it took decades to get here. So we’ve seen the share of online votes go up, but the actual overall turnout has been relatively flat.
Scott: So how does the process of online voting work in Estonia? Talk me through what it actually looks like.
Shivank: When someone wants to vote in Estonia, they pull out their ID card, slide it into their laptop or computer, and along with their ID card, they have a digital signature. As well as a PIN code that starts the whole decryption process. So then they can access their personal data from their population registry, and on the screen they have all their document numbers, phone numbers, email account, you know, all their employment information as well as their personal tax records. So this is how they’re able to vote online, through this, you know, secure portal, you know, through their physical ID card. Their votes are secret once the votes are cast. That then triggers the end-to-end encryption of the internet voting system.
Scott: This is something you do on a laptop?
Shivank: Yeah. Like it’s not mobile voting. It is internet based. It’s not as seamless as, like, having just an app where you could just press a few buttons and vote that way.
Scott: I’m immediately thinking about how I could steal someone’s vote. Is that a problem?
Shivank: They would have to have your ID card and PIN codes. I think it’s… they’ve set up checks and balances in a way that it would be very hard for someone to steal your identity and cast a vote on your behalf. Even if you lost your card, I think when you entered into the card reading device, it would still ask you for unique PIN codes that only you would know. It wouldn’t be the same as someone being able to use your credit card.
Scott: Since 2005, Estonia has been digitizing a whole series of processes: taxes, traffic, fines, all kinds of paperwork. How is being an extremely online nation going for them?
Shivank: So the Estonian government claims that the digitization as a… was actually a great cost-saving efficiency for them, and that digitizing processes saved them 2% of GDP in salaries and expenses. So that’s the same amount that they have to pay NATO for the threshold for protection.
Scott: Wait, what is the threshold for protection?
Shivank:All NATO members have to contribute 2% of their GDP towards defense spending. So the former president were saying that it’s almost like they were able to get their contribution for free because they have a small military.
Scott: Okay, cost savings, that’s an upside. In the case of voting, not having to go the polls on a specific day, that’s an upside. There’s gotta be a downside.
Shivank: I think the only downside might be that there’s no paper trail if they start using online voting completely. For example, in the United States, you may typically find yourself voting with a paper ballot marking system, accompanied with a computer that’s counting the votes, but at least then there’s still a physical record of the vote that was made.
Scott: IDs in voting is a really contentious subject in US politics. Progressives tend to think that requiring IDs is an intentional impediment, that it’s a way to throw up a barrier to voting. And conservatives have been using concerns about voter fraud as a way to kick people off the voter rolls, especially voters of color.
Shivank: Here in the US, documented voter fraud is actually really low.
Scott: Right. But just given all of that and given the American resistance to federal control of local issues, I’m having a hard time imagining Americans going for a federal ID card with a chip in it that you have to use to vote at home. Do you think they’d be into it?
Would Americans adopt a national identification system?
Shivank: Americans aren’t necessarily ready for that kind of centralization of data. It would be much harder to replicate something like a national identification system like we have in Belgium, for example, I have an ID card myself with a microchip that I can then insert into a card reader and then access a whole bunch of details online, you know, instead of having to go into a physical municipality. You can use the ID to look up your, uh, healthcare records, you know, during the pandemic we could use it to look at our previous covid test results, book appointments for passport renewals, and those kinds of functions, but we can’t go as far as voting with our ID.
Scott: Yeah, a microchip that stores your health records after covid and the 2020 election…
Shivank: …which was safe and secure...
Scott: Right. But I think something like that is just not gonna play well with Americans.
Shivank: My guess is that Estonians share the European mindset. My experience growing up in Belgium, living in the EU, it’s also kind of similar that there’s a higher level of trust in the government and in those kinds of institutions, especially being within the European Union where there’s free movement between borders and an exchange of information, as well as the governance being more the responsibility of the EU as opposed to individual countries.
So I feel like it’s easier to get everyone on board, given that it’s a Baltic country of just 1.3 million people. Then a multidiverse melting pot like the United States or India.
Scott: Coming up, we’ll address the elephant on the ballot: cybersecurity. But first, a quick break.
We are back with Shivank Taksali talking about online voting. And Shivank, there’s a big question mark around online voting that we haven’t touched on yet. Cybersecurity, making sure that encryption is actually secure, that people’s PINs and cards can’t actually be spoofed. I wanna go back to Estonia. What do security experts think about their system?
What do security experts think about Estonia’s online voting system?
Shivank: So, there’s a renowned Finnish computer programmer named Harri Hursti, who acknowledged that the Estonian i-Voting system has several strong security measures in place, such as end-to-end encryption and digital signatures, and that it’s been used successfully for several elections. But he also highlighted the potential risks of online voting, like undetectable attacks that could compromise the integrity of the results, and he called for continuous monitoring to identify and mitigate any vulnerabilities.
He suggested that the system should continually be tested and audited. So if there are vulnerabilities that hackers may be able to exploit, those need to be patched up, you know, as soon as they’re found, due to the risk of attacks from state actors that may want to interfere with the election results, especially given that an online system, despite being a useful tool for increasing participation, also increases the risks of potential interference.
Scott: And the state actor’s risk is not theoretical, right? Estonia has experienced cyber attacks.
Shivank: Yeah, this actually happened back in 2007. There were Soviet era statues removed from Estonia, and that led to two days of riots, and they experienced cyber attacks targeting websites of the Estonian government, parliament, banks, ministries… The Estonian government blamed Russians who were angry at the removal. So since that happened, Estonia moved to boost their cybersecurity.
Scott: And that wasn’t the end of it, right?
Shivank: Yeah. So a more recent example is from the parliamentary elections of March, 2023. From this year where there was an attempted cyber attack, which Estonia cybersecurity officials… they haven’t offered details into the attacks, but they stressed that the attempts were unsuccessful.
Scott: So how are they reacting after these threats? What are they doing to shore things up?
Shivank: Estonia has invested a significant amount of time and resources to bolster their defenses to ensure that their citizens feel like their elections are free of external influence, but they have to constantly evaluate. Their system again and again to make sure that it is free from external influence, from politically motivated hackers, like those based in Moscow, for example.
Shivank: Even the Estonian voting system is not completely foolproof, but it’s the best example we’ve got of a country doing it, you know, at that level. But critics are certainly, like, highlighting that even there’s risks there and it should be continually audited to make sure that it’s up to its highest standards of security.
Scott: OK, so where else is online voting starting to roll out?
Where else is online voting voting rolling out?
Shivank: There’s the United States!
Shivank: That’s surprising!
Shivank: Primarily West Virginia.
Scott: Tell me about that.
Mobile voting pilot in West Virginia
Shivank: I spoke to Secretary of State Mac Warner of West Virginia, who told me that they did a limited pilot, which was seen as successful, which then led them to introduce it as an option in 2018 and again in 2020, but just for military voters who were deployed overseas, as well as people with disabilities and other eligible uniformed voters such as first responders, so not necessarily the entire voting population of West Virginia.
Just for context, I should mention that Mac Warner is running for governor of West Virginia, and his record on elections is a little bit shaky given that he stands with Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Scott: Ah, that’s a very good thing to note. Um, what did West Virginia use to run this pilot?
Shivank: A platform called Votes. So it’s like a private vendor that builds mobile voting technology. So they kind of partnered with them to offer this as an option. You can access it through your smartphone or mobile device.
Scott: OK, so not the chip and card reader model of Estonia, but an app on your phone. How did it go?
Shivank: It went well! It was offered by more counties the next time around, and it increased border turnout among military overseas, so it alleviated the barriers that they were facing without this option.
Scott: West Virginia is one of the most rural states in the country. People are really spread out and broadband coverage can be a challenge
Shivank: Right, because people who are living in rural areas, they may not have the necessary means to even access that kind of platform and use online voting. You would definitely need a reliable internet connection. So yeah, it would be harder for them to use this tool without broadband access,
Scott: But if you have broadband access, can you do mobile voting now in West Virginia?
Shivank: Uh, nope. It was just for, you know, a specific group of voters that probably played well with the political base of a Republican-led state such as West Virginia.
Scott: OK, so that’s why they’re focused on military voters and firefighters and other sort of patriotic hero types.
Shivank: The political reasons for making it easier for military to vote overseas, you know, are, it’s easier to see that than increasing voter access for everyone in the state. More people voting isn’t typically a priority of the Republican party, especially among lower income folks, people of color, or people who are living in communities of color because they know those folks will most likely vote democratic candidates, you know, whose policies are more likely to uplift them, which could lead to Republicans losing seats.
Scott: So, setting politics aside, how was the pilot in West Virginia received?
Shivank: It was well received by people in the state, but it still remains controversial because of the concerns around security, privacy, and accessibility. There’s still some skepticism about it. For example, I talked to Cindy Cohn, the executive director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and in her words, it’s a “dumb and dangerous idea,” given that the security challenges of the public internet are just insurmountable.
Despite the benefits for certain groups, like military overseas, there still needs to be continuous audits to make sure that the system lives up to its security standards and that it’s transparent enough that we can trust in the integrity of the election results. So we’re continuing to see calls for greater transparency and testing to ensure the integrity of the election results there.
Scott: Are there any other states starting to play around with mobile voting, given that it’s so difficult to deal with the security question?
Are there any other states considering mobile voting?
Shivank: The state where it’s most likely to be tried next is Colorado, which has led the nation in voting system reforms, which has helped, you know, increase voter turnout.
Scott: Increasing turnout is like the stated goal.
Scott: Tell me about those reforms.
Shivank: Some of the reforms that Colorado has already done include automatic ballot delivery, same-day voter registration, a 15-day early voting period, and, unlike West Virginia, which turned to an off-the-shelf app made by a private company, Colorado is working with software developers to build its own open source mobile voting platform.
Scott: Why does open source matter?
Schivank: So open source means that the code is able to be reviewed by, you know, other software developers. Like you’re actually able to see the source code that’s increased transparency, which you know, would help ensure that it meets the safety standards like that allows it to be kind of audited, you know, by third-party experts to ensure that it’s secure enough. The flipside of that is that hackers could also review the code and potentially exploit any vulnerabilities.
Scott: OK, so having gone on this whole journey, learning about elections and voting and the American id, what do you think about the idea of mobile voting?
What are the pros and cons of mobile voting?
Shivank: I think there’s a lot of benefits, when it comes to online voting for the voter. It’s time savings. It’s more convenient. For the folks running elections, it’s cheaper for them, and it’s potentially more people participating in the democratic process, which I think is a win-win. It’s also a great benefit for people who struggle with the currently available methods of voting, such as people with disabilities who can’t go to a physical polling place, I think it definitely dramatically reduces barriers for them as well as people deployed overseas. But there are still so many hurdles for people to accept that this is an option that can be deployed at scale. The tech needs to be able to fend off potential cybersecurity risks, so, it needs to be secure enough, it needs to be reliable enough. People have to trust the results that it’s gonna produce, and it has to maintain confidentiality and transparency, as we talked about, and it’s very hard to get all those factors to coexist.
Scott: Right, there’s a lot of good reasons for wanting to do this, but there’s just a ton of moving parts.
Shivank: I think that people are going to be skeptical for a long time, and it’s gonna take a lot of work on behalf of the pioneers and the innovators to get folks to kind of let their guard down a little and be open and willing to even like, try these out and, like, have bigger pilots. I think the conditions for that world are still far off in the future, but it would take an enormous amount of awareness for us to get to a place where we even create the conditions or the environment that’s conducive to mobile voting being widely adopted.
Scott: So now, how do you feel about the American voting system?
Shivank: It’s been enlightening, uh, learning about online voting. I think I started out just purely looking at the potential benefits and kind of being starry-eyed, and I think I’m a lot more clear-eyed now about the obstacles that are in the way for this to really become a viable option in elections all over the world.
Scott: Shivank, thank you so much for joining us and for everything you do for the show on top of talking to us about online voting.
Shivank: Thank you so much, Scott. It’s been a pleasure.
Scott: Shivank Taksali is a platform strategist for Quartz.
The Quartz Obsession is produced by Rachel Ward with additional support from executive editor Susan Howson and platform strategist Shivank Taksali. Our theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. This episode was recorded by Eric Wojahn at Solid Sound in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and by Shivank himself at G/O Media’s headquarters in New York City.
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Nate DiCamillo: It’s like… who do we want to actually, like, benefit from taking the risk, and in a time where we have historic inequality, it’s reasonable that people are being upset.
Scott:. I’m Scott Nover. Thanks for listening.
Shivank: [as Barack Obama] Brought to you by Deloitte. Hopefully Sasha and Malia get a job there.
Scott: All right, one note: it’s gotta be SashaMalia. One word, SashaMalia. [as Barack Obama] My daughters, Sasha Malia.