By Shannon Schmidt
While the United States’ partisan battle between election accessibility and election security continues to rage, one US territory has quietly set in motion a plan that places the latter at risk to the benefit of the former.
In the spring of 2020, the Senate of Puerto Rico passed Senate Project 1314, a bill that would reform the territory’s electoral code. The bill contained an online voting plan which would call for the Puerto Rico State Commission on Elections to create an internet voting program accessible to all Puerto Rican voters by the 2024 gubernatorial election. Under the plan, Puerto Rico’s election commission would later be called to consider implementing exclusively-online voting in 2028. In response to this plan, groups like the ACLU, the Brennan Center, and Verified Voting urged then-governor of Puerto Rico Wanda Vázquez Garced to veto the bill.
According to these groups, internet voting cannot be accomplished securely. In a letter to the governor, members of Verified Voting–a nonpartisan collective of computer scientists and cybersecurity experts–described internet voting as the most vulnerable method of voting. The letter listed the types of attacks that would pose credible threats to internet voting, such as voter authentication attacks, malware on voters’ devices, server penetration attacks, and spoofing attacks. It also highlighted that the prevalence of these attacks could not be reliably detected. Even an online voting system that seemed to be working as intended could be subject to interference from undetected cyber-attacks.
Nevertheless, in June of 2020 Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced signed the new version of the electoral code into law, thus setting in motion the election commission’s task to create an internet voting plan. If the plan is successful, the Puerto Rican vote will be 100% online-cast by 2028.
Puerto Rico was not the first jurisdiction in the United States to adopt an online voting system, but its plan may be the most ambitious. In an article from 2020, Politico’s Eric Geller lays out three basic ‘flavors’ of internet voting that have permeated United States elections: electronic delivery, where voters receive a digital copy of a blank ballot by either email or download; electronic ballot marking, where voters can fill out their ballot over their personal electronic device, but must still mail it in or cast it in person; and electronic ballot return, where voters return their completed ballot online. As of 2020, three states–West Virginia, New Jersey, and Delaware–had adopted fully-electronic ballot completion and return for certain voters, including voters with disabilities. In their report “Email and Internet Voting: The Overlooked Threat to Election Security,” watchdog group Common Cause and several other advocacy organizations highlighted military voters as a demographic that has become routinely subject to fully-online voting. Even so, voters within this demographic are only subjected to online voting for as long as they are deployed overseas.
By 2028, Puerto Ricans could be the only constituency in the United States for whom voting online is the only option. And this reality may only implicate the election of Puerto Rico’s territory-wide leadership in the short-term; if Puerto Rico gains statehood by 2028, at least about 4,083,332 voters would receive and cast their votes in the 2028 U.S. presidential election fully electronically.
Proponents of online voting, like West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, believe that online voting is a useful tool for specialty groups–such as service members and people with disabilities–who have been disenfranchised by alternative systems. Similarly, could Puerto Rican voters benefit from these systems in light of their unique obstacles to voting?
In 2017, Puerto Rico’s electorate was reduced after thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to the mainland (especially south and central Florida) following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. In the 2020 primaries, Puerto Ricans faced such long lines at the polls that polling locations were forced to remain open past their official closing times. Even worse, some voters who did reach the polls in 2020 were unable to cast their vote after paper ballots failed to reach voting precincts, further damaging Puerto Ricans’ faith in their electoral system.
Online voting would likely make voting easier and more accessible to many Puerto Ricans. However, voters’ access to online voting raises several logistical concerns specific to the Puerto Rican landscape. For example, approximately 35.7% of households in Puerto Rico do not have computers with access to broadband internet. Ongoing problems with Puerto Rico’s electricity grid, paired with the island’s vulnerability to natural disaster, could prevent Puerto Ricans from casting their vote in the aftermath of utility-disruptive events like hurricanes and tropical storms. Still, online voting would likely extend the window within which Puerto Ricans could cast their votes, and its implementation would not preclude the continued installation of polling locations for voters without home-access to the internet.
But heightened accessibility alone may not justify the security threats to online voting. By 2028, Puerto Rico could demonstrate the success of online voting in several ways; for example, general voter turnout and turnout among historically-disenfranchised groups may have significantly increased. But while the successes of online voting may be clear and demonstrable, its failures could still lurk beneath the surface, undetected.