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Voting: There’s Not an App for That

By Eric Fleming

Today, most people expect to be able to do anything and everything on their smartphone. Apple’s famous 2009 refrain “There’s an app for that” has quickly transformed from a selling point into an expectation. Almost every conceivable task has been moved to the internet, and subsequently to the mobile phone. People use smartphones to bank, shop, pay bills, and find a soul mate. This has left many people asking the question “Why can’t I use my phone to vote?” However, the voting process in America has evolved slowly, often lagging behind current technology. As a result, it may be a long time before Americans are able to exercise their most fundamental democratic right while waiting in line at Starbucks.

Though the voting process may change slowly, it’s certainly not stagnant. Originally, votes in America were cast orally; that is, by publically announcing who you were voting for. The idea of a secret ballot came from Australia and wasn’t completely implemented until 1892. A lot of different methods for casting and counting ballots have come and gone since then, but the common theme among them is that they have lagged behind current technology, often by several decades. In the early 1900s, mechanical lever machines began to be used to handle the rapidly increasing number of ballots. These were used in some areas of the U.S. into the 2000s. Punch card voting systems were developed in the late 1970s and adopted by Wisconsin in 1980, but this development came over twenty years after the technology began to be used in computer programing in the 1950s. The successor to punch cards, optical scan machines, were similarly dated, being adopted in the 1980s despite having been used for standardized tests since the 1950s.

More recent advances include touchscreen voting machines and optical scan machines that save a digital image of the ballot. This ability to access digital images of scanned ballots has been immensely important in increasing confidence in the voting process by allowing easy auditing. Overseeing these recent changes in the voting process in Wisconsin as well as enforcing laws related to campaign finance, ethics, and lobbying has been the responsibility of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board. The board’s director, Kevin Kennedy, acknowledges the slow pace of voting technology advancement. “The technology was always several steps behind what people were using,” says Kennedy, “People are reluctant to change the mechanisms that have an impact on how we chose the leaders of various levels of government”.

Many states, including Oregon and Washington, have transitioned to a mail-in ballot system. This is one of the first steps that demonstrates an interest in and the viability of a remote voting process. Yet, physical mail is not the cutting edge technology one would expect to be transforming the voting process. As Kennedy points out, “Most people no longer rely on the postal service to get their bills, to get their communications, and yet we have an increasing number of states going to all-mail voting.” These absentee ballots, which are mailed in or dropped off at designated locations, are just simple paper ballots. However, some forms of absentee ballots for people in the military and overseas have now been moved online.

The obstacles to making online voting universal, rather than just for overseas absentee voters, are significant. The first major concern is authenticating the identity of a voter. A person must only be able to cast a vote if they are eligible, and they must only be able to vote once. Remotely authenticating a user with the level of confidence required for voting will not be easy and will require more than just a username and password. In-person voters are currently verified using identification documents, signatures, affidavits, and checks on biographical information, depending on the state. These verification requirements may be difficult to replicate in an online system.

A second concern is maintaining the secrecy of the ballot. The system needs to be set up in a way that each vote can be verified without revealing to anyone in the process how an individual voted. This is where a fundamental difference exists between online voting and other online transactions that require security. Banking, shopping, and other secure online transactions all tie an individual’s identity to their actions. But with voting, a fundamental part of the process is removing the this tie in order to maintain the secrecy of the ballot.

The largest concern with online voting that remains is the vulnerability to attack. With cyber security experts and hackers in a constant arms race, it may be difficult to maintain a digital voting system that is undoubtedly secure. Election fraud has always been a risk in America, even with paper ballots, but online voting potentially scales up the risk. If all of the votes are part of one connected system, a single attack could have a much larger impact than an attack on a single ballot box would now. Additionally, malware on a voter’s computer could change their vote as it is sent. Voters would not be able to get verification that their vote was received correctly because having proof of how you voted is restricted in order to prevent coercion and vote buying. Therefore, even if the voting system itself is not compromised, the results can still be impacted by a virus in a voter’s computer.

So how far away are we from overcoming these obstacles and beginning to implement online voting systems? “From a practical standpoint, I think very few people think it’s a reality in the next 5 to 10 years,” Kennedy says. However, Kennedy is more optimistic about the possibilities of online voting the long term. “It’s not a question of can it be done, it’s a question of can it be done cost effectively and can it be done with a confidence level that people are willing to accept.”

So for the time being, it seems that we won’t be able to vote from an app on our phones while waiting in line at the coffee shop. Instead, we’ll have to spend time waiting in line at the voting booths. But, if while waiting in that line you feel the need to watch a movie, book a flight, or find a date, you’re in luck — there’s plenty of apps for that.

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