As national and local voting systems continue to go digital, Americans are grappling with a new possibility: is the future of voting online? Like something out of Dave Eggers’ techno-dystopian novel, “The Circle,” online voting could certainly improve turnout, but it may also come with serious privacy incursions and the potential for manipulation. Indeed, just last July, Election Systems & Software, the United States’ largest digital voting system provider, revealed that they had installed remote access software in voting systems, making them accessible from any location. And this is before voting has even gone fully online.
In order to understand the broader ramifications of online voting, Americans need to take a global perspective and consider the impact of programs that have already been introduced in other countries. As with most new technology, the question of whether online voting adoption will prove a net good does not have an easy answer.
Estonia’s Voting Experience
One country that recently introduced the option of an online ballot is Estonia, and the option is part of their early voting program. And the results? In the most recent parliamentary elections, 44% of votes were cast online. The system is secured using national IDs and PINs to ensure that only eligible individuals can vote.
Of course, Estonia is a very small country; there were just over 561,000 votes cast in this election, and they already have a national ID infrastructure. In a much larger country like the US that lacks such tools, online voting would present additional systemic challenges.
Existing Options In America
At present, when Americans vote, systems vary at the state level, but 24 states have voting systems backed up by the internet. In other areas, including the District of Columbia, individuals can submit certain ballots by fax or email, allowing for remote voting. Still, major security concerns remain, which is why states are hesitant to take voting fully digital. Additionally, polls show Democrats are slightly more trusting of the process than Republicans, but only 64% of Democrats say they would “likely” vote using an online system.
Alternatives To Online Voting
As part of revamping our current voting system, American states are instituting a variety of new measures. Many have extended their advance voting periods, allowing people to vote as far as two weeks ahead of traditional elections. Other states seeking a more progressive option now offer the option of same-day voter registration. Finally, another group of voting activists are focused on re-enfranchisement efforts, such as fair voter ID laws, bans on voter purging, and reinstating voting rights for released felons.
Certainly at a pragmatic level, offering more voting options is more likely to improve turnout and access and these efforts are far less likely to create the functional problems associated with online voting. For example, even when voting takes place at a polling station using hi-tech tools, it still occasionally fails. Just this March, New South Wales voters were unable to cast ballots because the digital roll was offline.
The simple fact is, paper ballots are secure and they don’t have technical issues. They’re a reliable way to vote, and yet we continue to move away from them. As Americans continue to rethink our voting system, we should keep in mind how even small technical issues can compromise the entirety of democracy and the ways online voting opens up every vote to backdoor manipulation. Is that really the way we want to cast our votes?