Should we vote on our phones?

Startups Want To Make Electronic Voting Apps Mainstream. But Can We Trust Them?

As voting technology platforms widen, so too does public debate and scrutiny about whether elections should be happening online in the first place.

Last month, all eyes were already on the Iowa caucuses. It was the first election of the primary season and, with that, held significant political clout. But when a poorly-designed app left the caucus without a clear winner, media attention turned away from the candidates to the reliability of electronic voting.

As voting technology platforms widen, so too does public debate and scrutiny about whether elections should be happening online in the first place. Bryan Finney, the founder of Democracy Live, a voting technologies provider, says the Iowa fiasco “cast a shadow across the voting and civic technology space.” And Pete Martin, CEO and founder of Votem, a mobile voting startup, tells Supermaker that the company didn’t lose customers but concerns arose.

“We didn’t get any backlash per sé, but it’s given our customers some pause so they’ll ask again, ‘Is this secure? Can we do some additional testing?’” Martin says in a phone conversation.

In the last 10 years, tech has seeped into every facet of our lives. From social media to dating apps to GPS navigation, our daily routines are so revolved around tech that we don’t even bat an eye when a new app is introduced. Given this, it may come as no surprise that the idea of voting via apps or on your phone is gaining momentum. Voatz, SecureVote and Votem are new startups hoping to implement voting systems that are more accessible, convenient and engaging. “There’s over a hundred million people who are under 25 that are going to be the largest electorate in the next two years. And I can tell you they want to vote on their phones,” Martin says.

The driving force behind online voting is that it will boost voter turnout. The fact is, says Martin, “when things become easier, you tend to do it more often.” West Virginia used Voatz’s blockchain-based mobile voting app for the 2018 midterm election. For that election, turnout among overseas voters increased by 3-5%. Even at such small percentages, when it comes to hundreds of millions of voters, “that’s a game-changer in any single election we’ve had in the last 30 years,” Martin adds. This year, Democracy Live piloted mobile voting in a Seattle-area election. According to Finney, turnout more than doubled from the previous election.

"There’s over a hundred million people who are under 25 that are going to be the largest electorate in the next two years. And I can tell you they want to vote on their phones."

Pete Martin

Despite these minor successes, criticism abounds over the trustworthiness of voting tech. Max Kaye, the Chief Technology Officer of SecureVote, says he hears the same arguments from the public about flawed designs of certain products. Kaye has spoken at conferences and engaged with political commentators over the idea, but has since drawn back from trying to persuade people.

“Technical arguments aren’t the best way to convince someone who isn’t technical,” Kaye says in a phone call. “It’s one of these problems where it’s much better to spend time creating a system that is robust by design and stands the test of battle than to particularly try to rebut people’s arguments too much because you end up spending a lot of time doing that instead of working on actually building things.”

In addition to the Iowa technology flop, MIT researchers released a report in February identifying major security vulnerabilities in Voatz’s technology indicating hackers could alter ballots and expose voters’ identities. Voatz responded to the research in a blog post, stating the study was based on an old version of their app. But the report and additional research from the Department of Homeland Security ultimately led West Virginia to abandon the voting app.

“No doubt there has been a lot of healthy and good questions coming from the academic, the advocate and the activist communities,” Finney says. “We embrace that because we want to work in collaboration with all of the different, interested parties.”

As tech leaders call for academics to work with them, Philip Stark, a statistics professor at University of California, Berkeley, says he does work with cryptographers, but the field agrees remote voting isn’t secure.

“It isn’t that we aren’t willing to work with them,” Stark says. “In fact, we write white papers explaining the hard problems and why isn’t there no solution to this right now, and instead these people are just marketing stuff, lying about what it does, and hiding the implementation details to make it harder for people to understand the specific way in which it fails. So that’s really disingenuous.”

Internet voting pilots in Canada and Hawaii didn’t increase participation. In some cases, voter turnout actually plummeted.

According to Stark and other experts, claims that online voting boosts voter engagement just aren’t true. Internet voting pilots in Canada and Hawaii didn’t increase participation. In some cases, voter turnout actually plummeted. “What raises turnout is exciting candidates who get people engaged,” Douglas W. Jones, computer scientist at the University of Iowa, says.

Stark believes the rise of voting technology startups is about profit—not accessibility. “People see an opportunity to sell a shiny, new product,” Stark says. “Election officials want to be perceived as progressive and adopting new technologies. The problem is what technology and for what purpose.” Stark adds that technology failures shouldn’t prevent people from casting their ballots—which is exactly what happened in Los Angeles County when voters were turned away from the polls because the new touch-screen system was missing required codes in order to operate.

And yet, Finney does want the nation to start thinking more strategically about voting, especially in circumstances where people can’t make it to polling stations because of emergencies like wildfires or disease outbreaks. Not only is there a need for this technology, but a greater desire for it.

Ultimately, whether or not you trust technology and politics mixing, things are shifting and such changes necessitate a need to be open to new ideas while remaining critical and urging transparency. “There’s going to be a new generation of voters demanding new generation voting technologies,” Finney says. And, as a new generation of voters who grew up online emerges, voting on your phone just makes sense.

Phone it in

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