For the first time in U.S. history, an election conducted by smartphone is underway. The race, a board of supervisors election in King County, Washington, is small potatoes compared to, say, a presidential election, but the world is watching to see how it turns out.
According to NPR, some 1.2 million voters in the county, which encompasses Greater Seattle, will be able to use a mobile web browser to vote from now until election day (Feb. 11). County officials hope the expanded capability will boost voter turnout, which has historically hovered around one percent in the board of supervisors election. Washington state votes by mail, so the online expansion will be similar in that both require a human to verify voter signatures.
Voters will navigate to the election website, enter their name and birth date, make their selections, then verify their ballot by signing their names on their phone’s screen. Election officials will verify the ballots by comparing signatures. That could be an entire problem unto itself—I know my scrawled signature on a smartphone screen (which is more of a scribble than a name) looks nothing like the one on my driver’s license.
Voting over the internet would almost certainly boost voter turnout in the U.S., namely because it’s incredibly convenient. I can do everything else on my phone; why not vote?
Well, there’s the whole Russia election interference thing. Intelligence officials confirmed that Russian hackers attacked U.S. election infrastructure in 2016 and are likely to double down on those efforts in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election. It’s unclear if any developed online voting system is impenetrable to all hostile attacks, and so the Senate has recommended that states say no to online voting.
Democracy Live, a Seattle-based electronic voting company, is providing the technology for Kings County and Tusk Philanthropies, a nonprofit focused on mobile voting, is funding the rollout. Tusk expects to fund between 35 and 50 percent of similar pilots over the next five years. CEO Bradley Tusk told NPR the group will use that data to prove that online voting is safe—if that turns out to be the case
“Everyone who doesn’t want this to happen is never going to say, ‘We oppose mobile voting because we don’t want higher turnout,’” Tusk told NPR. “They’re going to say, ‘It’s not safe.’ And if we have proven 30, 40, 50 times over that it is safe, it’s a lot harder for those objections and arguments to fly.”
Kings County residents who are skeptical of online voting will be able to print out their ballots and mail them in by election day.
I want the convenience of voting on my phone, but I also don’t want my ballot to be manipulated the instant it leaves my browser. Maybe one day we’ll get there, but with democracy under constant attack, today definitely doesn’t feel like that day.