In an age when the vast majority of Americans can bank, shop, and access a dizzying array of other services with a simple swipe on their smartphones, casting ballots on paper or bulky machines seems like an ancient ritual from the pre-Internet past.
While several states and jurisdictions have experimented with some form of e-voting, smartphone polling proponents said they are still waiting for elections to catch up with the latest technology. They say a shift to smartphones or tablets could provide more accurate results and expand access for millions of traditionally disenfranchised citizens.
“The potential for changing voter turnout is tremendous, because it means that everyone from the disabled to the elderly to the sick can vote,” says Rachel DeLevie-Orey, assistant director at the Atlantic Council, an international-affairs research organization. “There is something really attractive about pajama voting.”
But she cautioned that smartphone voting isn’t just around the corner. “We couldn’t just implement this tomorrow and instill voter confidence. I think we would need to incrementally introduce it.”
Denver and the state of Oregon have experimented with allowing people to pre-fill ballots on mobile devices, speeding up the process at polling sites, while Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler is pushing his state legislature to enact a new $60 million initiative that would allow constituents to cast their ballots on tablets.
Schedler wants to swap out antiquated voting machines, purchased with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act of 2002, over the next three years. He argues that the tablets would save the state money in the long run since new voting machines would cost upward of about $150 million.
“Like many states, we bought machines in 2005, and they’re nearing the end of their life,” says Meg Casper, an adviser to Schedler. “We’re certainly looking toward the future.”
For security purposes, the tablets would not be connected to the Internet. Rather, votes would be transmitted over an internal line.
While individual jurisdictions typically follow their own election procedures – often a hindrance to a state’s changing or adopting a uniform system – Louisiana has a top-down, centralized voting system. The purchasing and maintaining of voting machinery is handled through Schedler’s office.
Louisiana already uses a smartphone app called GeauxVote that allows people to pull up their registration, access a map of their precinct, and pre-fill a ballot. Schedler wants to take the app a step further, envisioning that it would produce a code after a ballot is saved, and then voters can scan that code on the tablets.
The touchscreen tablet “would read that code, populate the ballot, and you can easily review it and cast your ballot,” says Casper. “So it’s almost like making it an express line.”
Other countries, like India and Brazil, have successfully implemented electronic voting. India, the world’s largest democracy, with 814 million voters, uses battery-operated electronic voting machines the size of a briefcase, while Brazil is working on fingerprint biometric voter identification as part of a major upgrade to its electronic voting system.
Thirteen countries, including Canada, France, and Australia’s state of New South Wales, have experimented with online voting.
So far, Estonia is the only country to offer Internet voting to all its citizens in national elections, according to a recent report from the Atlantic Council.
Online voting is surging in the Baltic nation, which provides chip-enabled national ID cards for security, rising from seven percent of all votes cast in the 2007 national election to nearly 30% in last year’s election.
Since the 1990s, “Estonia has built an e-government infrastructure to incorporate technology as a pervasive and widely accepted aspect of people’s lives,” says the report, which analyzes how technology is used in voting systems around the world. “Estonians pay their taxes and access healthcare records online, making online voting part of a natural progression.”
By contrast, e-voting in the United States lags far behind, says Conny McCormack, a retired Los Angeles County election official with more than 30 years of experience.
“It has become glaringly obvious that we’re falling behind much of the rest of the world,” she says. “The generational divide on this is going to be critical, because young voters have no concept of a paper ballot or mail vote – it doesn’t have any relationship to the rest of their lives.”
McCormack adds that the generational impact of smartphone voting would be shown through increased voter turnout among millennials.
It would “draw younger voters to the process due to convenience and familiarity with technology, and especially smartphones,” she says.
But security remains a top concern when it comes to incorporating more digital tools into the voting process, and experts say allowing constituents to cast ballots on smartphones – whether through apps or online – can compromise privacy and open the door to hackers.
“You’re sending your votes and information out over the Internet, which is kind of a dangerous place,” says Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, an election-watchdog group that tracks laws and regulations that promote transparent elections.
“The problem is, how do you secure something like that and how do you maintain voters’ privacy?” asks Smith. “So far, those are unsolved problems.”
A case in point is the 2010 election fiasco in the District of Columbia, which developed an Internet voting system for overseas and military voters and invited “white-hat” hackers to infiltrate the system – which they promptly did.
A team of computer scientists from the University of Michigan was able to break into the system within 36 hours, change all the votes, and rig it to play the school’s fight song whenever a new ballot was cast.
Smith said common security protocols, like encryption and firewalls, cannot safeguard against breaches in elections.
“Aside from transporting the ballot in an encrypted fashion, there are problems with malware on voters’ computers or smartphones,” she says, adding that elections conducted online could also be prone to denial-of-service attacks, which cut off Internet connection and services.
On the other end of the spectrum are voting-transparency activists like Santiago Siri, president of Democracy Earth Foundation, which works with governments, political parties, nonprofits, and private companies to promote democracy through technology.
Siri says voting online could be virtually foolproof using Bitcoin’s blockchain technology, an open-source software system used to safely send electronic currency.
“Blockchain technology brings a level of legitimacy and transparency to the process,” he says. “It will draw a line between governments that embrace that kind of accountability versus those that stay the same.”
Using blockchain technology, voters would be assigned a digital “coin” that represents their vote. Their selection would be anonymously recorded in an online public ledger, and the voter could actually verify that his or her ballot was counted.
“Transactions are encrypted, and that process is able to replace the tasks that governments traditionally do, processing information,” says Siri.
While blockchain is a popular means of sending and receiving cash, Smith of Verified Voting counters that online voting is vastly different from online banking.
“We do a lot of things online, but we don’t necessarily do them safely,” she says. “A lot of money is lost in online fraud. We can afford to lose some money in online transactions, but how many votes can we afford to lose if something goes wrong with the voting system?”
Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said he thinks local jurisdictions will have more freedom in choosing which voting vendors – including tech companies – to work with.
“I think likely what is going to happen in the future is we have a more open-source, publicly owned system where it’s not a single vendor,” Norden said. “Apple can make its iPads much more cheaply than one of the big voting machine vendors.”
He added that he’d like to see voting catch up with technology.
“We’re getting to the next generation of equipment, where you might vote on a tablet and that produces a paper record that you then submit,” Norden said. “I think there is the potential for a lot of big changes in the way we vote.”
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