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Why Can’t We Vote on Our Smartphones?

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Since the internet entered American homes in the mid-1990s, it's been steadily invalidating many long-lasting (and now archaic) systems in our society. But today, thousands of us will trudge down to our nearest polling place, wait in line, and cast votes with pen on paper.

Thousands more will find this age-old process just inconvenient enough to forgo their civic duty and skip voting altogether. But what if we could vote on our phones instead? Wouldn't that be nice!

Giants like Google, Facebook, and many others are trying to leverage everyday technology to encourage people to vote. Google made a big push for the midterm elections by using data to provide directions to local polling stations, all baked right into websites and Google Now. Using public voting data and opted-in location info, the team refined search to serve up stuff you actually want to see. For the first time, it will also bring this voting intelligence to Google Maps and Google Now to make the ceremonial slog to your local polling place less painful.


These handy reminders and fun social voting experiments are steps in the right direction. Facebook's 2010 "I Voted" buttons were the focus of a study analyzing voter behavior, which discovered that you were .039 percent more likely to vote if you saw that friends had also voted. What may seem like a small percentage is actually near 600,000 additional votes.

But nothing would guarantee my vote more than if I could just do the whole thing from my smartphone.


Imagine: rolling out of bed, logging onto an app, and picking the leader of the free world while you brush your teeth. Web-based smartphone voting could eliminate the headaches and time commitments and finally make voting convenient.

Swipe right for democracy

But the push for online voting isn't just about convenience. It's also about accessibility, not just for the busy 9-to-5 masses, but for disabled people and military personnel, and it's in those voting communities where we're seeing the most innovation. In 2011, Oregon became the first state to use iPads to allow 89 disabled citizens to cast their vote. However, this was a completely offline solution. Once completed, the ballots were printed out and turned in at nearby polling stations.


The benefits of integrating technology with citizenry are obvious, but translating that to the web and funneling it into your smartphones is a unique set of challenges computer scientists and security experts still see as "not ready for prime time."

Opponents like to point out that hackers could basically pick the next president—and that's only mild hyperbole. In 2010, the District of Columbia developed a election system for overseas absentee voters and invited hackers to tear it apart, and they did just that. The participating hackers' description of their intrusion is almost nightmarish and exemplifies how digital voting could go terribly, terribly wrong:

Within 48 hours of the system going live, we had gained near-complete control of the election server. We successfully changed every vote and revealed almost every secret ballot. Election officials did not detect our intrusion for nearly two business days—and might have remained unaware for far longer had we not deliberately left a prominent clue.


Too many variables, too many risks

Creating unhackable voting systems are so tricky because they have to uphold the integrity expected of elections by eliminating voter fraud while also providing anonymity to the user. Those massive challenges are only complicated further when you move to mobile since you now have voters with different devices, different experiences with smartphones, and different ballots that require specific designs.


"The voting population is an incredibly broad and an incredibly diverse population—everyone over the age of 18 regardless of level of education, language that they speak, disability that they have," explained Michael Byrne, a computer science professor at Rice University. "There are virtually no commercial products out there that are designed to be used that broadly."

Byrne has studied how we use voting systems today, and more importantly, how they can be improved for the future. Earlier this year he tested a mock mobile election platform with a much more manageable pool of 84 voters. The study, albeit small, concluded that smartphone voting is a pretty good idea, and more accurate than traditional ballots. "The systems did better than we thought they would do," Byrne said.


But creating a platform that works, and works securely, for every registered voter in the U.S. is near impossible. There is no perfect solution.

The same can also be said for the specific needs of every voting county (of which there are thousands). Byrne thinks the next possible step is more pervasive adoption of Oregon's iPad approach. You could at least fill out a ballot while on a mobile device, and print out results at a nearby polling station. Users would also be allowed to change votes if they wanted to help fight against voter fraud through coercion. It's by no means the "lounge in my underwear while exercising my civic duty" approach, but it would certainly keep those long voter lines moving.


Byrne is now working with well-resourced counties, like Los Angeles County and Travis County (think Austin, Texas), that want to develop their own voting systems rather than adopt what's already out there. These systems could include mobile voting in the long term, and hopefully become templates for other states or counties to eventual mimic.

But for the near future, the risks still outweigh the benefits. "I think we can create a design that's usable, but then we have to look at how do we make that secure," Byrne says. "Security issues are just so severe that until those are addressed, we're not quite ready for mobile voting."


Scary or Necessary?

Mobile voting will continue to be a slow-moving innovation because we simply can't get it wrong. Outside forces hacking systems and changing votes would fundamentally undermine the entire democratic process, but the obvious benefits for turnout rates and increased accessibility for voters would create much more representative elections.


Is the smartphone in our pockets the future of how we will fill up Capitol Hill, or will the myriad risks always eclipse the potential reward?