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Modernizing our voting procedures to reflect 21st century realities

TechCrunch TechCrunch 15/06/2016 Michael DeCesare

By the 2018 midterm election, more than 230 million Americans will use a smartphone on a daily basis. That’s more than 95 percent of all adult Americans.

By contrast, in 2012’s presidential election, fewer than six in 10 Americans eligible to vote came out to perform their civic duty. What’s more, in 2014’s midterms, that number dropped to a staggeringly low 36 percent — or about 10 percent of the entire population.

When those who didn’t turn up were asked why, almost one in three said they were simply too busy. This is an understandable response, especially when you think about the fact that the way we vote really hasn’t changed in centuries. You drive to the voting center, stand in line — sometimes for hours — and either pull a lever or write in your decision. It’s an archaic system that’s not only inefficient, but also incredibly insecure.

As today’s digital generation becomes tomorrow’s mainstream voter, it’s not difficult to see our country’s already low turnout becoming even lower. Millennials are a highly mobile generation, and their sense of civic duty tends to manifest in social causes rather than political discourse. Expecting them to be in their home districts for every election (or to prearrange the dreaded absentee ballot) seems highly implausible. And long lines at the ballot box? Forget it. They simply won’t wait.

But what if, instead of expecting people to go to a polling location, we took the ballot box to them, through their smartphones, tablets and laptops?

The notion of online or mobile voting isn’t a fanciful one: In March this year, the Republican Party of Utah ran an online voting trial that its chairman, James Evans, hailed “a tremendous success.”

Outside the U.S., the practice is even more prevalent — both Switzerland and Estonia implemented it in 2009 and 2004, respectively, in an effort to increase voter turnout. And it worked: In Switzerland, studies have reported anywhere from a nine to 14 percent increase in turnout. In fact, one in five Swiss now vote online, and a quarter of Estonians. Norway, France, Australia and Canada are all well down the path, too.

Let me be clear about one thing: I am advocating for people to have the option of voting online in addition to traditional methods. While there are ongoing efforts to ensure that everyone has access to the internet in this country, some Americans do not have access because of geography (rural areas) or socioeconomic level (people who cannot afford home internet access).

Voting online is about inclusion, not about disenfranchising those who lack internet access. Until access to the internet for all is assured, a hybrid system like those implemented in Switzerland and Estonia represents our best path forward.

As today’s digital generation becomes tomorrow’s mainstream voter, it’s not difficult to see our country’s already low turnout becoming even lower.

After the extremely important question of inclusion, the second hurdle to widespread adoption of online or mobile voting will be security. For people to embrace the idea of casting their votes through their mobile devices, they must feel secure in doing so. In the past, even cybersecurity experts have disagreed over the best ways to keep online data secure. But technology has evolved significantly even in the past five years, and the risk of data being breached can be lowered significantly when the right tools are in place.

Led by the retail banking sector, multifactor identification is rapidly becoming industry standard. The concept behind this is simple. In order to log into a system, the user must have three things: something they know (a password or phrase), something they have (a smart card or electronic token) and something they are (a fingerprint or iris scan). For those without access to biometric readers, location can also be factored in.

For instance, in tandem with a password and single-use token, their home Internet Protocol (IP) address or home phone number could authenticate registered voters. With regard to mobile security, the last few years have seen widespread adoption of biometric authentication tools (such as fingerprint scanners in newer smartphones).

Next, let’s take encryption, which can be used here to tackle a few challenges. The main security challenges of an online voting system are twofold: voters’ personal information must be protected and their choices kept anonymous; and the integrity of the voting data must be assured.

Encryption of data in transit and at rest will render any captured data worthless, while the use of ultra-secure cloud-based storage will help ensure that voting data is not accessed while it’s stored. The fact that the FBI needed to rely on an outside vendor to break the encryption on the Apple iPhone shows just how strong mobile encryption is on even the most popular consumer devices.

The final key discussion here is transparency, stemming from the concern that votes will be cast into a black box, where access and oversight are unclear or weak. If anything, the reverse is true.

We’re seeing entire industries being built on the collection and analysis of sensor and other types of data. Hospital systems, electrical grids — entire cities — are being automated and optimized based on big data algorithms and analytics. It’s called the Internet of Things, and even if you don’t know of it, you’re a part of it. The combination of advanced analytics and human oversight could make a digital voting system more transparent and efficient than paper ballots ever could.

Civic engagement is currently at an all-time low. We often decry Washington for its inability to take decisive action, but this is one step the government can take to re-engage with the public, particularly younger generations.

I urge the Federal Election Commission and Congress to take a serious look at modernizing our voting procedures to reflect 21st century realities. A good start would be to bring together experts from across the private and public sectors and academia to give this issue the hearing it deserves. A better step would be to begin federally funded trials in upcoming local elections. The proof will be in the participation.

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