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Thinking outside the ballot box — why not online voting?

Thinking outside the ballot box — why not online voting?
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The cynical hijacking of the U.S. Postal Service to undermine mail-in ballots has secretaries of state and party leaders scrambling for alternatives: ballot drop-boxes, curbside voting and expanded in-person polling sites. Yet, no one is proposing a sensible solution that is being used in all sorts of transactions between citizens and the government: the internet. Doubts about paper ballots could be overcome if our boards of elections quickly move to set up online encrypted, two-way verification voting. 

This is not to suggest that remote voting should be the only method of casting a ballot in the 2020 election, but it could be an option. This would make an end run around a hostile federal administration by helping the states, counties and other jurisdictions that run elections to automate the polls and speed up counting the results. In the process, it would help universalize access to the ballot, modernize our infrastructure and bridge the digital divide, while protecting citizens from the coronavirus.  

Doubters will doubtlessly raise objections. “It is too late to try this,” pessimists may say. But have we not seen teachers all over the country shift to online instruction within a short month after the pandemic broke out? If teachers can be trained to Zoom, poll watchers from both parties can learn how safeguard e-votes. To obtain a mail ballot in many states, voters still must certify their registration. Signatures on ballots must match those on file. Electronic signatures can surely be confirmed if challenged, just like handwritten ones collected at polling places across America.  

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“What about foreign hacking?” scoffers may ask. To be sure, the challenge of protecting voter lists and ballots from foreign interference is a daunting problem that cybersecurity experts must solve in any case. But verification and security of personal information have not impeded the Census Bureau, Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service from accepting and processing online applications and checking for any duplications or other irregularities. As for the secrecy of the ballot, the IRS has protected all tax returns, including Donald TrumpDonald TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT MORE’s,  like they were in Fort Knox. There is no reason to believe that encrypted, two-way verified voting would be any less secure, and once results are certified, the data can be destroyed.  

The threat of election fraud that the president keeps claiming exists may be just as great with in-person voting as mail ballots. After all, appointment of poll workers is easily susceptible to partisan interference. Paper ballots have to be transported and, as they say, can fall off the truck.  When a voter’s registration is challenged in person at the polls, he or she must now fill out a provisional ballot form that is checked for validity so as not to deny their right to vote. Besides, political insiders know more or less how we are going to vote anyway, based upon our partisan primary registration and previous election results in each precinct. Surges for one candidate or another would be a red flag for vote tampering.  Congress can make it a felony to falsify an e-vote.  The votes themselves can be sent to decentralized boards of elections at different times to minimize outside interference.

Casting one’s ballot over the internet has other benefits.  High unemployment means we have available skilled personnel eager to work on this national endeavor.  We could finally launch the infrastructure projects both parties keep promising to create jobs and connect our rural and less advantaged citizens to the web.  Online voting will save energy on travel to the polls.  It may avoid the problem of inadequate staffing of inaccessible or insufficient polling places open at inconvenient times, obstacles that have been producing long lines and discourage voting on election day.  It would allow for social distancing and efficiency.

The benefits of safely connecting all of our citizens to the democratic process — regardless of where they live, when they work and what other responsibilities they may have — are surely worth the cost and effort we could make as a nation in the two short months remaining before November 3. Online voting can expand the suffrage, serve additional public purposes, and — if properly designed — restore confidence in our most democratic of institutions.

Hilary Silver is Professor of Sociology, International Affairs, and Public Policy at the George Washington University and Professor Emerita at Brown University. Follow her on Twitter @hilary_silver.