Poll: Smartphones Could Boost Voter Turnout

Reuters Content Solutions

Smartphone voting might be just the motivation many Americans – especially millennials – need to participate in elections, according to a new Ipsos poll conducted by Reuters Solutions for SAP.

More than a third of all Americans – and half of those ages 18-34 – said they’d be more likely to vote if they could use a smartphone to cast a ballot securely, the poll shows. And more than half of Americans – and nearly three-fourths of millennials – said they’d be interested in casting ballots via smartphones, provided their votes were secure, according to the poll.

The survey of 3,016 randomly selected Americans over 18 years old, conducted online between August and September, suggested that smartphone voting could lift voter turnout, especially among those under age 34. Election participation figures for the U.S. are lower than in many other developed nations.

“I think millennials are more likely to do just about anything if they can do it from their smartphones,” says Jesse Moore, vice president of civic engagement at Rock the Vote.

Millennials also happen to be the age cohort with the lowest voter turnout: 52% reported that they vote in presidential elections, compared to 78% of those in the 55-plus bracket.

Rachel DeLevie-Orey, a voting expert at The Atlantic Council, an international-affairs think tank, says the concept of “pajama voting” – which is gaining ground in India and Brazil and has been tried in several other countries – is unquestionably attractive.

“We get all our information through our smartphones,” she says, “So why wouldn’t you flip to an app that would then transmit your vote?”

Considering the outsized roles that smartphones and the Internet play in modern American life, a baby born today would be likely be baffled if confronted by a paper ballot in a voting booth in 18 years, DeLevie-Orey adds.

“There’s something alienating about a piece of paper,” she says.

But for younger voters, who have come of age in an era dominated by news of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, security is a major issue. According to the poll, 73% of respondents said they were concerned with the security of smartphone voting, with millennials nearly as concerned as older voters. Their worries are justified, according to Lawrence Norden, deputy director at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“With all the news with foreign governments potentially interfering in our elections, we should be extremely cautious. While it might be in our future, it’s probably not in the immediate future,” says Norden.

He cited other risks of smartphone voting: “If you cast your ballot over the Internet or on your phone, there’s no way to check that your vote was recorded accurately. If you have proof of how you voted, it makes more sense that someone could pay you or intimidate you over your vote. So that’s the danger.”

Thomas Hicks, the chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, says the hesitation to implement smartphone voting stems more from concern about the magnitude of the change in the electoral system than a lack of viable technology.

“If we can put a robot on Mars and drive that robot around securely, why can we not send a ballot from my home to my county register’s office?” he asks.

While nationwide smartphone voting isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, there are plenty of other ways in which technology can play a role in increasing voter turnout. Online voter registration would go a long way toward encouraging younger people to vote, says Moore, adding that millennials are often unfairly pegged as being apathetic.

“Apathy isn’t nearly as much of a problem as things like procrastination,” he says. “A lot more young people miss the voter-registration deadline than don’t care about the election.” Smartphones are handy tools for setting up reminders and accessing information on where and when to vote.

“It’s not that it’s a huge hassle to register with paper, but with young people, it’s speaking their language a little bit more,” Moore added.

Norden agreed that making it easier to register would raise voter turnout among young people. Millennials tend to move more often, he says, and right now, “the government does not make sure your registration moves with you.”

Another option is to allow people to vote from any polling place, designate Election Day as a national holiday, or hold elections on weekends. DeLevie-Orey points out that the current system does not encourage voting by low-income people or those who work shift jobs, since it’s frequently difficult for them to leave work to vote. Early voting exists in many states, but it is often restricted and some studies say it may actually lower turnout.

“It’s incredibly prohibitive to large swaths of the country that we vote on a Tuesday,” she says.

Ultimately, the success of smartphone voting will be contingent on the government’s ability to engage in effective outreach and persuade voters that they can trust the system to be secure and effective. DeLevie-Orey says “a massive voter-education campaign” will be needed to overcome public concerns about hacking.

“It doesn’t matter if we have a perfect technical system. Trust is the most important thing,” she says.

It will take time to establish that trust, says Hicks: “I think there are still a lot more obstacles to get over, but I hope that within my kids’ lives, we can use smartphones for voting.”

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