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Online Voting: It Could Be Easier, But Is It Better?


What if you could vote from the comfort of your home? (c) 2016 HowStuffWorks
What if you could vote from the comfort of your home? (c) 2016 HowStuffWorks

It seems so obvious that people should be able to vote online. After all, we bank, email and keep detailed employee profiles under virtual lock and key, and those endeavors are all going so well, right?

Uh, maybe not. Numerous big-ticket entities like Sony, the U.S. government and just about every bank in the world is all too familiar with the perils of cybercrime, as are the innocent bystanders whose hard-earned cash and identities are compromised. Still, in a society where people have grown accustomed to accomplishing every task electronically, from ordering pizza to renewing a driver's license, many are scratching their heads wondering what the deal is with an antiquated voting process that often feels like we're partying in 1999.

One might argue that today's touch-screen precinct kiosks are still light-years ahead of the easily misread and misused paper ballots of yore (you know Al Gore still screams “hanging chad!” in his sleep), and they wouldn't be wrong. In a world where technology is constantly changing to make everything faster, it seems counterintuitive that most countries have yet to adopt online voting as a standard.

It seems even more incredible that many U.S. states have reverted back to paper ballots, thanks to electronic machines that have broken down or become unreliable, and have yet to be replaced. To some voting experts however, this trend is par for the course.

“Voting technology tends to be behind the curve on most things, so I don't expect it to be ahead on this one,” explains Andy Bernstein, executive director of HeadCount.org, an organization that promotes voter registration at rock concerts. He notes that online voter registration is just now starting to take off in America. “The success of that will affect how quickly we move or don't move to online voting.” 

The Potential

The beauty of the Internet has always been that it makes most pursuits more convenient. Although the U.S. government has yet to embrace online voting, states like Oregon, Colorado and Washington have transitioned to universal vote-by-mail status, which burdens the government with providing ballots, rather than relying on busy Americans to seek them out. (Instead of going to a polling station, voters either mail the ballots back or drop them off at an official location like a post office). Colorado and Oregon are both in the top five states in terms of voter turnout, with the former jumping from No. 8 to No. 3 since enacting vote-by-mail.

“These systems seem to encourage voter participation, and they're just better for people,” Bernstein says. “Nobody wants to give up an hour. Time is money!” Voters in extremely busy precincts, where lines can snake on miserably for hours, are likely to agree.

This shift into convenience voting illustrates the potential for online alternatives, in terms of time saved at the polling place, reduced productivity losses from many people leaving work early to cast ballots and improved voter turnout.

In a nation where voter turnout is embarrassingly low compared with other developed countries (only 53.6 percent of the eligible voting population bothered to turn out in 2012, as opposed to Sweden's 82.6 percent), it's clear that something has to be done to encourage poll participation.

The Perils

Obviously, the main threat to online voting is presented by the aforementioned cyber-criminals who already do things like expose cheating spouse accounts and siphon off dollars from bank accounts. “An election would be an obvious target for hacking,” says Bernstein.

In fact, at least one test program has already been shot full of virtual holes by hackers, who rigged it so that the University of Michigan fight song played upon completion of every ballot cast. The hack was courtesy of a bunch of Michigan students (encouraged by a professor), who sought to prove that the system was flawed and insecure.

This concern was voiced by numerous experts, but was subsequently ignored by election officials until the rabid Wolverines made their point. “Generally what we can all agree on is that technology is always going to be part of a long-term solution, but if we move too fast it can bring more problems than benefits,” Bernstein says. “The important thing is that changes be made without haste and in a way that is secure.”

Critics of online voting also say that the process would make it too easy for people to vote under someone else's handle. However only 32 states require some form of identification (picture or otherwise) in order to cast an in-person ballot. 

“Some would argue that [online voting] could lead to more instances of voter fraud,” says political operative Michael Embrich, who has worked on more than 30 state, local and federal campaigns. “In reality, it is a lot more stringent than just letting someone walk in and sign their name with no form of identification to vote.” In an email interview, Embrich says that in an Arizona primary, each online voter was assigned an identification number, and then required to correctly answer a number of personal security questions, much in the same way that banks ascertain online identity. Detractors point out, however, that it's actually very rare for people to vote in person under someone else's name.

Other critics insist that online voting disproportionately favors those with Internet access and computer savvy, putting lower income, less educated and older voters at a disadvantage. In-person voting also preserves the integrity of the experience, where people are able to vote “free from intimidation” and in secret, without someone possibly standing over them telling them how to cast their ballot.

The Future

Since the first attempt at online voting in Arizona's 2000 Democratic primary was met with much criticism, thanks to the candidates' concerns that constituency members might not be able to handle the online process, the movement appears to have stalled in political circles, even as corporations, certain government groups and unions have hopped on board.

Countries like Canada, Estonia, France and Switzerland are among those that have implemented online voting to various degrees, from testing to full-scale elections. Estonia is currently the only country where all voters can participate online, although it should be noted that Estonia is roughly the population of San Diego, and therefore a far cry from the entire U.S. However, the fact that a quarter of all Estonia's votes were cast online in a 2011 election and there was no serious voter fraud, helps to paint a picture of what could eventually be the reality.



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