What is eVoting?
While voting in the United States is traditionally associated with paper ballots, scanning machines, and long lines at local polling places, electronic voting (eVoting) is becoming more prevalent in government elections.
eVoting is the process of using a computer or computer-based machine to display a relevant election ballot, allow a voter to make selections, and tabulate the vote. According to research by Stanford University, since 2004, eVoting machines have been used for nearly 25% of all votes cast in presidential elections in the United States.
However, security and access concerns have prevented the large-scale rollout of eVoting across the country. Most eVoting is currently held in designated precincts using special-purpose machines — direct recording electronic (DRE) machines and optical scanning machines.
A recent Okta report found that 14 million more Americans would register to vote if it was easier to do so. Despite concerns, eVoting presents a potentially new way forward for voting in America, opening the door to new technologies in the way we elect government officials.
What are the issues with the current voting system?
Voting has been a part of American history since 1776, but the system hardly resembles that enjoyed by the country’s founders. Over the years, laws have been passed and amendments made to expand voting rights and regulate voting across the 50 states.
However, challenges remain, including accusations of voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the influence of lobbying in politics. The COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult for minority and low-income voters to cast their ballots in person, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In addition, state-level laws have been passed to restrict voting access, and these laws disproportionately impact vulnerable and marginalized communities.
Gerrymandering, the manipulation of electoral district boundaries to favor one party, group or candidate, creates disproportionate representation and limits the voting power of certain communities.
Exploring the potential benefits of eVoting
The inherent hurdles of traditional voting — inconvenience, inefficiency, and fraud — can be mediated with the potential strengths of an eVoting system. Whereas paper ballots require careful completion and precise filling, eVoting provides a similar user experience to that of using a mobile phone or tablet. The familiarity creates an easier experience for voters who already know the systems they’re being asked to use.
This in turn creates the potential for more efficient voting, especially if email-based eVoting becomes a reality in future elections. eVoting by email eliminates the downfalls of current voter suppression practices like gerrymandering that make it difficult for underprivileged communities to vote in person. Combined, in-person and email eVoting can:
- Increase voter turnout by making voting an easier, more accessible practice
- Reduce costs by deploying virtual voting environments that eliminate the need for election locations, paper ballots, and related staffing requirements
- Improve voter confidence with ballots that are cast instantly and verified in real-time
- Renew interest in the political system and voting by providing more democratic access to elections
How can identity verification help with eVoting?
Effective eVoting wouldn’t be possible without identity verification. To ensure ballots are correctly attributed to the proper voter, local governments could hypothetically enact document or biometric verification at the time of submission. In everyday life, these verification methods help businesses comply with KYC and AML regulations, but they’d have greater importance in preventing election fraud if used every cycle.
Voter fraud is a hot button issue in American politics, and the narrative has become more prevalent in recent elections. There’s been a push to eliminate mail ballots, require stricter identity verification at polling places, and prevent certain groups from casting their votes. The benefits of eVoting, though, could reaffirm voters and politicians who’ve lost faith in our current election system.
The growth of vote-by-mail in the United States
The fundamental point of voting is to represent the views of the people, and getting better turnout is key to this. The option to vote by mail removes the burden of physically going somewhere to vote. Voting-age citizens who experienced the impacts of COVID-19 have grown accustomed to a remote-first world where voting by mail is becoming more commonplace.
All states allow at least some form of mail-in voting, but some make it more accessible than others. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 27 states and Washington, D.C. offer "no-excuse" absentee voting, meaning any voter can request and cast a mail-in ballot, no excuse or reason necessary.
At the height of COVID-19, seven states required a reason beyond the virus to vote absentee. As the United States has progressed past the peak of the pandemic, though, vote-by-mail has expanded and brings with it the promise of greater voter turnout. According to MIT, extending vote-by-mail options increases turnout in midterm and presidential elections, but may increase turnout more in primaries, local elections, and special elections.
When citizens are given the option to vote in the ways they find most convenient, like absentee or through eVoting, it’s likely they’ll be more motivated to actually cast their ballot in current and future elections.
Could elections be run more effectively via eVoting?
In theory, yes. In practice, there are a whole range of considerations that should be taken into account. Election systems are complex, and adding technology to these procedures has to be done in the right way in order to improve the process, without compromising on security, privacy or access.
However, it’s undeniable that everything is becoming more digital. Mail votes already create a secure and easy way to increase voter turnout and participation in democracy. But why stop there? In the future, new channels, including digital platforms, could open up the voting system to more people.
And this is the direction that services are heading — we’re not going backwards. There was a time when online banking would have been dismissed, that it was considered unsafe and insecure. Now it’s part of our everyday lives. Secure technologies and processes have been developed to ensure it’s convenient and safe for businesses and users. If we’re comfortable managing and transferring one of our most valuable assets via digital platforms, why can’t the same be done for voting?
What can we learn from countries that have carried out eVoting?
Some countries have already tested eVoting. Estonia proved that an e-voting model can safeguard the process for millions of citizens.
But some instances of electronic voting haven’t been so successful, such as during the Iowa caucus in early February 2021, when only 439 voters from nearly 1,800 precincts were able to cast their vote through the designated app. A key lesson to learn from examples like this is that systems need to be thoroughly tested for reliability, security, and user onboarding before they’re released for widespread use. And back-up plans need to be available on the day, in case any problems arise.
How could electronic voting work?
A key part of online voting comes down to the question of identity. How do you prove who you are online to prevent fraud? How do you tie the votes to a real person while at the same time ensuring the process remains anonymous? To do so, eVoting systems would need to integrate with a system of trusted identity providers.
A dramatic shift straight from in-person voting to purely electronic voting could cause problems in itself. So a good approach to introducing electronic voting, would be to dovetail it with other voting channels. Multiple voting options could actually be a good thing. It would be the perfect way to open voting up to more people and widen access, increasing voter turnout.