Don’t Be Afraid of E-Voting

In 2000, cell phones were only good for placing calls and texting. No one knew what cloud computing was. Artificial intelligence wasn’t something that businesspeople talked about seriously, it was the stuff of sci-fi.

But while the tech world is unrecognizable compared to 18 years ago, our voting process looks much the same. Too much. As I write this, the state of Florida is moving ahead with a recount for its governor’s and Senate races. Reports of voting machine breakdowns were also widespread on Election Day 2018.

Around the same time as Election Day, I was able to wire $80 to my daughter using my smartphone while she was waiting in a line at a store to make a purchase. We’re living in a time where you can send money over your phone in seconds, but in the most technologically advanced economy in the world, we have to wait in line and pull a lever to vote and then wait hours for people to count them. It’s time for an upgrade.

Imagine digital voting

Estimates are that 113 million people voted in the 2018 Midterm elections. That’s up from 83 million in the last Midterms in 2014, but it’s still just around 48% of eligible Americans. That’s still way behind Sweden’s 85.8% and Belgium’s 89.4%. If you consider that only about one-third of Millennials voted this year, letting citizens cast their vote via their smartphones might be a game changer.

In addition to boosting participation rates, electronic voting could make democratic representation more dynamic. Right now, most citizens have to wait until November to cast their ballot and few of us interact with our Congressional reps and Senators. But if there’s no offline voting infrastructure to set up for each vote, then we could vote more often. Better yet, citizens could let their elected politicians know what they think about various topics whenever they want.

Considering how much politicians rely on polling, you might think they actually like being able to hear from their voters more. This doesn’t mean emails or letters to their office, but instant polls about bills under discussion. It would require more of a change in culture than a change in technology, but if citizens felt more in touch with their democracy, then they’d participate more. It’s an upward cycle that helps explain why Swedish voting participation is so high. In that country, there is a full-time “democracy navigator” who helps citizens and groups to make their voices heard.

The Estonian Example

Despite the objections you may have heard or read about Internet-based voting, it’s not a pipe dream. Estonia has been offering e-voting since 2005. Estonian citizens merely need to visit the national election website and install the voting app. A national identity card, read by the computer’s card reader, verifies a citizen’s identity. After that, they can send their vote anytime a week before Election Day. Voters can also cast their ballots the old-fashioned way; e-voting is merely an option.

To prevent fraud, the Estonian government lets citizens use their computer or their phone to see how their vote was recorded. The results are encrypted so no government officials can see how an individual voted.

Threat of Tampering is No Excuse

One common objection to e-voting is that it will lead to widespread fraud. Prior to the most recent elections, many pundits were worried that Russia was going to hack our voting process. When that didn’t happen, many took comfort in the fact that our voting system is so archaic that it’s impossible to hack.

But dismissing e-voting because it could possibly lead to hacking is a bit like arguing that fire is bad for humanity because it could burn people or that electric motors should be avoided because you can drive into a stone wall and kill yourself. You can hack banks too, but it’s hard to find one that doesn’t offer internet access anymore. We trust that Vanguard can protect our 401(k)s against hackers, but we don’t think someone can come up with a way to protect our votes?

One possible contender for a solution is blockchain. Citizens can use a digital ID (maybe one connected to a biometric identifier like a retina scan) to cast their vote and, like citizens in Estonia, check it to make sure the right vote was cast.

Or, the more likely path is that we will continue voting the old-fashioned way even as we do everything from shop to visit our doctors via smartphones. Clearly, our government has little or no interest in making it easier to vote. That’s all the more reason to keep pushing for a better alternative.

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