Voting: Why is There No App for That?
We don’t do math on an abacus and we don’t crank-start our cars anymore, so why are we still using such an outdated system for voting?
Voting is our most basic civic duty as Americans. It should be the simplest act we perform as citizens. The process seems simple enough: check a box, submit your ballot, get a patriotic sticker.
But the reality is much messier than this.
Our current process involves arriving at a designated location, on a specific day, and then standing in line while you wait for a chance to have a volunteer to cross your name off a paper list and assign you a number. And in some locations — mostly low-income areas — the line is so long you’d think you were going to ride Space Mountain at the end of it.
The polling locations are designed to be conveniently located near your home. But how many of us drive 30 minutes or more to get to work? If you were hoping to use your lunch break to complete your civic duty, suddenly that middle school gym in your neighborhood doesn’t look so convenient.
When you finally do get to your ballot, it feels like you’re taking the SATs (another analog system that needs updating, BTW), filling in circles and then feeding the ballot into that scanner-storage locker that looks suspiciously like an industrial paper shredder. At least you get a cool sticker at the end of it.
I think if the Founding Fathers saw how we vote today, they’d probably react with, “Wait, you guys are still doing it that way? Don’t you have the Internet now?”
“Guys, get back to the time machine, we didn’t go far enough. Franklin set the date to 1960 again.”
Low-income citizens are the ones most heavily burdened by this antiquated system. Yes, your employer must allow you some time to vote, but they don’t have to pay you for that time. Maybe that means your shift for the day gets cut in half, while you take a bus to your polling location and stand in line. For someone living hand-to-mouth, that’s a hardship. I couldn’t blame you if you chose working the rest of your shift instead of voting.
Most of the errors we experience in the voting process today are due to voters not understanding how to use their ballot, not software issues. So it’s low-tech and user un-friendly.
If online ballots were an option, I believe that we’d have more informed voters across the board. How many of us have found ourselves in a voting booth, staring at a list of names without any clue who any of them were? I’ve been there. Sure, you try to be a responsible voter and do your research in advance, but that’s not always the reality, especially in local elections. How many people are out there voting for a candidate just because they have the same first name as their favorite uncle or because their last name “sounded Irish”?
One option that’s already available, which I think voters don’t take advantage of enough, is the absentee ballot. A lot of us think of it as a convenience only for older folks who can’t make it out of their house, or people who will be traveling out of the country. It’s not just for them. It’s for anyone who can’t make it to their designated polling location on Election Day.
Last year, my team — led by Jason Miles Lorimer— designed and built a mobile platform that allowed Michigan residents to request an absentee voting ballot online, using their smartphones. We designed MiBallotApp to work within the unique requirements of every district in the state. It was complicated to set up, but once it was done, voters across the state had a simple, user-friendly way to request an absentee ballot without having to pick up a form in person or fax anything to their clerk’s office.
We shop online, we bank online, file our taxes online — and those are transactions that someone might actually want to intercept.
But I get it. Voting and e-commerce are not created equal. And while it’s unlikely that one person will show up at your polling location pretending to be you, the chances that hackers would want to infiltrate software to affect the numbers of the entire election are much higher.
We’re able to complete financial transactions online securely because of processes like receipts, double entry bookkeeping, and financial audits. So let’s incorporate those processes into voting. Let’s add on additional measures like reCAPTCHA to prevent robots from swaying the election outcomes. Several platforms like Bingo Voting, Prêt à Voter and Scantegrity are making strides to innovate the voting process, but we’ve still got a ways to go.
There is one country currently using online voting for major elections: Estonia. And they’ve had online voting since 2005.
Not everyone uses the online system; about a third of Estonia’s population cast their votes this way in the 2015 parliamentary elections. But it’s an option. It makes the process more accessible.
You might argue that Estonia is not a world power, and its population doesn’t come close to that of China, India, or even the U.S. But we have the smartest tech minds on the planet, and we’ve had more than a decade to find a way to adapt this system for our own voting process.
In an age where technology advances so quickly that my iPhone is basically outdated before I can even get it out of the box, shouldn’t we have been able to figure this out?
I think we can. I think there are folks out there who are smart enough to make it work. Maybe you’re one of them.
It would be unrealistic to expect that we’ll have online voting for this presidential election. But the next cycle is do-able. That gives us four years to develop, test and implement a better voting system.
One that is simple, straightforward and makes the process more accessible to every citizen.
That would get my vote.