The US election and the pandemic: is eVoting the way forward?

This article was originally published on Forbes.com

People are bound to feel uncomfortable lining up to vote in person in the middle of a global pandemic. Voting in person goes against these guidelines. 

Voters face a choice: go to the polls to vote but potentially expose themselves to the virus, or stay home and miss out on voting altogether. And if people are forced to make this decision, the country could see a lower voter turnout than usual.

Democracy is based on the will of the people, and turnout from a wide and representative portion of society is key to their voices being heard. To add some perspective, in 2016, fewer than 60% of U.S. citizens voted. President Trump won the election with 46.1% of the vote, but with less than a 60% turnout, this only equates to 27% of the total eligible voting population. 

Even in normal circumstances, these low figures suggest that Americans find it difficult to vote. Covid-19 could make this worse and restrict voting to an even smaller proportion of people. And this raises questions: if people are forced to choose between their health and their vote, is this going to result in an accurate representation of voter mindset across the country?

Are mail-in votes the answer?

Some U.S. senators have floated the possibility of the presidential election being carried out by mail-in votes. A recent Okta report examining the state of digital identity found that 67% of Americans support the use of a mail-in ballot system to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

Concerns have been raised that mail-in votes could give rise to more voter fraud, but there is little evidence to support this. According to a Northwest Herald article, "Over the past 20 years, more than 250 million ballots have been cast by mail nationwide, there have been just 143 criminal convictions for election fraud related to mail ballots. That averages out to about one case per state every six or seven years, or a fraud rate of 0.00006%."

But the rules around mail-in voting are complicated. Each of the 50 states uses its own system. Five states — Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Hawaii — send mail ballots to everyone. While 28 states allow residents to vote by mail for any reason, they must actively request a mail ballot. But 17 states only grant voters mail ballots for specific reasons. “Illness” is generally one of them, but it’s unclear whether fear of catching Covid-19 would qualify. 

Finally, the U.S. Postal Service may not be equipped to deal with the significant increase in volume of a large mail-voting effort. And there is a risk that some mail-in votes may not be counted if they aren’t delivered on time or aren’t completed correctly. 

Is the future of voting online?

It’s undeniable that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted a need for the development of digital civic societies. While it’s unlikely that a digital solution would be ready in time for this year’s U.S. election, the current situation points to some of the benefits that could be achieved by such a solution.

Some countries have already implemented successful digital processes when it comes to voting. Estonia, for example, has proved an e-voting model can safeguard the process for millions of citizens. So, what are the benefits?

For one, it could be more accessible and convenient. Currently, U.S. elections always take place on Tuesday, which means either taking time off of work or facing long lines early in the morning or in the evening. During the Democratic primaries earlier this year, there were reports of people waiting for five or six hours at some polling stations.

The ability to vote by a mobile device could significantly speed up the process. With 81% of U.S. adults saying they own a smartphone and over 70% having a driver’s license, imagine being able to vote from the comfort of your own home. Mobile applications could be used in place of, or alongside, polling stations. Voters today can remotely and securely verify their identity by taking a photo of their government-issued ID and a selfie. This process then binds that person to their electronic ballot. 

An online voting system also has the potential to make the system fairer. With fewer than 60% of Americans voting in person in 2016, there’s clearly room to make voting easier and more accessible for a larger proportion of the voting population. And the larger the proportion who vote, the greater the representation of citizens.

Of course, any online voting system needs to have security at its core. It would need to withstand the threat of cyberattacks and potential hacking. But if done right, it could help eliminate a large proportion of voter fraud.

It isn’t just the U.S. elections that could benefit from e-voting systems. Covid-19 has had an impact across the world, and many other elections are facing a similar scenario. The benefits of a secure, convenient online voting system could have an impact globally. In places where elections have seen corruption in the past, perhaps it could even create a fairer and more democratic outcome.

To find out more about eVoting and how it could work, listen to our full webinar recording. Featuring Husayn Kassai (CEO and co-founder at Onfido), Frederic Kerrest (COO and co-founder at Okta), Jeremy Grant (President of the Better Identity Coalition) and Leonardo Gammar (CEO at Agora). 

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