Future Tense

What It’s Like to Vote Online in a Real Election

It depends on something very old-school.

A closeup of a pink-nailed finger touching a tablet computer.
Timothy Muza/Unsplash

The United States’ voter turnout is lackluster, to say the least. For the average presidential election, about 60 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. That number drops to 40 percent for midterm elections, and a 2016 study of 30 major US cities found that for 20 of those cities, mayoral election turnout was 25 percent or less. Not great, but other election turnouts can be even worse: In Washington state, the King Conservation District—one of the state’s 45 conservation districts dedicated to managing the state’s natural resources—determines the district’s budget and work plan for environmental projects, and sets organization-wide policies. It received only 3,500 ballots in its 2019 board elections, out of 1.2 million registered voters. That’s a voter turnout of 0.29 percent.

In an effort to include more voters, the Conservation District has added an online ballot system as part of its 2020 election, which just opened. As a resident eligible to vote, I tested out its new system, powered by a local voting company called Democracy Live. First, the site prompted me to enter my first and last name and birthdate: easy. There was only one position to vote for: also easy. After I made my selection, the system requested my signature, which I supplied by dragging my mouse around in a small box the system provides, then asked me to review the completed ballot. (The result looked more like my second-grade cursive practice than my usual signature, but I hoped no one would notice.) Finally, I entered a phone number and email address in case there were any issues with my ballot. Voila, I had voted—and it only took me 30 seconds.

After submitting my vote, I couldn’t help but think about the number of ways a nefarious actor could have used this system to commit election fraud. If all it takes to access my ballot is a person’s full name and birthdate, I could try voting as my husband, or any number of my friends in town whose birthdays I’ve celebrated. (Facebook could probably provide me with even more birthdays, if I wanted to go big on the fraud.) In theory, each ballot’s required signature is the only thing standing between me and a dozen free votes. That left me with questions about vulnerabilities in online voting: Can signatures reliably identify a person, let alone serve as a safeguard against fraud?

While signatures used to be an all-important sign-off on legal documents, it’s become more of a formality as digital documents take clicks as a stand-in for agreement, as Josephine Wolff wrote for Slate in 2016. These days, most people scribble a completely illegible signature onto their restaurant bills or package receipts. Take, for instance, the signature of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, which looks like the loopy scribbles you might make when testing whether a pen still has ink in it. When Lew first took office in 2013, his terrible scrawling made news, since his role required his signature be printed on all U.S. currency. After that, he shaped up and produced another signature where you can actually make out a few letters. He wasn’t the first U.S. secretary of the treasury to do so; Timothy Geithner also had to adopt a more legible signature after taking the office.

It’s impossible to make out a name in Lew’s loops or any other lazy signature made up of scribbled lines. But the King County Elections office assumes that your pattern of scribbles is all your own, even if they can’t actually make out your name. “People are shockingly consistent even with their scribbles,” says Halei Watkins, communications officer at King County Elections, which is partnering with the King Conservation District for their election. Signatures should, in theory, share some characteristics, and its current system for all elections depends on this assumption. The county digitizes handwritten signatures on the back of paper ballots, and elections staff is trained by the Washington State Patrol to match those ballot signatures against the signature that voter supplied on their voter registration forms, or signatures on IDs they’ve registered for through the Washington State Department of Licensing. Watkins says there are often multiple signatures on record for voters, and signature verification judges have access to all of them should they need additional matches to make a ruling.

Those trained signature sleuths are looking for things like the signature’s overall spacing and connections between letters. (If you’re curious about the other features signature judges look for, the State of Colorado has published its signature verification guide.) If the signatures don’t seem to match, the Election Office will notify the voter that there’s been an issue, hence the email address and phone number I had to provide with my vote.

Essentially, the signature verification step with online ballots is nothing new for the region; the only thing that’s different about the King Conservation District’s election is that signatures can now be collected online as well as by paper ballot. “It’s all verified by human eyes,” says Watkins. “We don’t use signature matching software; we don’t trust it.” Other states, like Colorado, claim the opposite; a 2018 NPR piece on signature matching reports that “most big counties in Colorado use signature software that is more consistent than human eyes,” according to former Denver elections director Amber McReynolds.

Whether humans or computers are better at signature matching depends on the specific human or computer program. In a 2013 study comparing human and machine performance in signature verification, the best human judge reached 100 percent accuracy while the best machine achieved only 93.6 percent accuracy. But the average human performance ranged between 38 and 66 percent, while the average machine performance mostly hovered around 70 percent. In short, the best human verifiers are really good, but most are so-so.

For the purposes of the King Conservation District’s signature comparison, human judges will likely do just fine. But as election boards are considering digitizing ballots, and as credit card companies aim to cut down on fraud, scientists are working on more secure ways of verifying signatures. One solution is to collect not only the final signature, as most systems currently do, but to also record the signer’s scrawls in real time. Different strokes and pressure patterns could reveal unique features in a signature that would be much more difficult to forge than just a static signature. Some researchers have even proposed systems where a user’s smartwatch or exercise tracker shares its accelerometer and gyroscope sensor data to identify patterns, revealing whether a signature is real or forged.

Surely, other election districts will be watching what happens in the King Conservation District’s elections with interest. I asked Watkins whether King County Elections might adopt online voting as well. “We’re curious to see how it works, how our voters respond to it, and what they think, but it’s not currently allowed under regular elections by state law,” she says. “We want to do a lot more piloting and testing before we do it for one of our own elections.” If more local and state governments move towards online voting, especially in partnership with voting companies or private funders (the King Conservation District’s election has partnered with Tusk Philanthropies, which has recently focused on funding mobile voting efforts), elections offices might also need to grapple with data privacy issues: What kind of voter data or meta-data might these partners be handling, and how can we ensure that data remain secure?

As long as signatures serve as proof-of-identity, here’s a tip for anyone who wants to keep their signature secure (at least in King County): Don’t even attempt to sign your own name.
Watkins tells me that voters in King County can use whatever mark they want to sign their ballots. “They can draw a heart as long as it matches the signature we have on file,” she says. “There’s one voter who draws a taco on every ballot.” Sorry for blowing up your spot, Taco Voter, but this is brilliant; forgers would most likely try signing your name, but would never think to draw a taco. Use this information wisely.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.