When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, it threw New Jersey into an ad hoc experiment in online voting.
The storm made landfall just days before the presidential election, and along with an estimated $30 billion in damages, it also wiped out hundreds of polling places, leaving many people without a place to vote. Beyond that, many residents were displaced from their homes, unable to even receive or cast an absentee ballot by mail.
In a bid to keep the displaced from becoming disenfranchised, the state turned to the internet for help. New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno launched the U.S. into an impromptu experiment in mass online voting—designating the citizens as “overseas voters” and thereby granting them the ability to request and return ballots online, either by email or by fax.
Had New Jersey’s experiment gone well, it would have been a major victory for advocates of online voting, who’ve long argued that the internet could be a valuable tool to protect the right to vote and increase dismal U.S. voting rates.
It did not, however, go well at all: Email servers were overwhelmed, leaving voters unable to request or return their ballots. In an attempt to fix the situation, one elections official gave out his personal email address to voters to submit their ballot requests—and a security researcher discovered that his password recovery question was apparently his mother’s maiden name after looking at Hotmail’s password-reset form. The official says he was never hacked.