Voting is Broken. Your Phone Can Fix It

My voting nightmare is a technology problem waiting for a solution

Voter using a huge iPhone as a voting booth

 Lifewire / Hugo Lin

“The ‘L’ is to the right,” I thought, trying, in vain, to use telepathy to help my septuagenarian polling place volunteer find the second letter of my last name on an iPad keyboard.

The guy had clearly (as had I) grown up around typewriters and physical keyboards and must’ve known that the iPad’s keyboard layout is modeled (as are all electronic keyboards) on the original QWERTY keyboard system. My polling guy found the “L” and then lost it again when he had to enter the first letter of my first name.
And this might have been the least frustrating part of my voting experience.

Land of the Lost

The team of poll workers were utterly flummoxed by the new iPad-based voter ID verification system. It literally took a half dozen of them 15 minutes to log into one system and get it ready for me. Even then, my polling guy forgot his training almost immediately and got stuck after verifying my name.

As is the case in most “modern” U.S. voting systems, the electronic trail takes a brief detour into paper with a paper ballot that’s handed to voters in a highly secure, though undersized, Manilla folder.

I marked up my ballot and then fed it into a machine that is, naturally, not in any way connected to the iPad. Another poll worker saw me pausing to check which way I should feed in my ballot. She assured me with a level of confidence, which was, in hindsight, unfounded, that it didn’t matter.

In the ballot went and then… nothing. No thumbs-up sign on the screen, no printed receipt. Yes, even my formerly confident poll worker seemed concerned, glancing over at the screen and wondering out loud why it didn’t offer any kind of “I got it” message.

Voting Gif
This could work, right?.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

She stared at the machine as if willing it to say or do something. After 30 seconds—perhaps she mind-melded with the thing—she declared, “It’s fine, I guess.” I collected my I Voted sticker but wondered if I should’ve put “Voted” in quotes.

Why should we have semi-complex systems manned by volunteers who struggle with personal technology? One polling official told me that their aging polling volunteers (none was younger than 70) trained earlier this year on this new system and, when some saw the issues with it, decided against working the polling places.

Tech Failure

There are 775,000 people in my voting area and, in the most recent election, only 150,000 apparently voted. In 2016, a reported 61.4 percent of the voting public turned out for a presidential election. Why so few? Apathy is surely one reason. But I think convenience, system clarity, and access to voting booths might be another.

For some reason, voting officials have been laser-focused on upgrading or fixing polling places, but have done little to enable more voting by making it easier for every eligible voter to cast their ballot.

I’m lucky; I only have to travel to a school a few hundred yards from my home to cast a vote, but some people have to travel miles.

It’s true, people can:

  • Vote by mail
  • Do early voting
  • Submit an absentee ballot

All these options can help ameliorate voting convenience issues. But I’ve long believed there’s a simpler solution to both distance and local polling technology issues: Mobile phone voting.

The Ballot Tool in Your Pocket

It’s an obvious solution and one that, thanks to current security features, is available on most smartphones (as well as on desktop and laptop devices). This could easily solve most of our location, ID, verification, and vote count issues.

Each time I raise this possibility, I’m shouted down by those who believe a mobile, internet-connected system could be easily hacked. It’s a pat response that doesn’t entirely hold water. When companies and users follow smart security protocols including encryption and training to spot and avoid phishing attacks, they can reduce the incidence of hacks. Also, it’s not like current systems are that secure. Plus, unlike social media and email, the voting cycle is a short-term act. We could download a mobile voting app on or near voting day, cast our vote from wherever we are, get a confirmation message, and then delete the app until the next voting cycle. Mobile voting on a Blockchain-backed system has, in limited trials, proven successful.

Honestly, how hard would it be for someone else to arrive and give my full name and address as their own? That information is readily available.

I think two-factor authentication, wherein the voter has to enter a code messaged to a physical device they have on hand before they vote, could manage mobile ID verification. It would certainly be more secure than me guiding some guy to type in my name on a tablet, having me audibly verify my address, and then illegibly signing my name on the tablet. Honestly, how hard would it be for someone else to arrive and give my full name and address as their own? That information is readily available (and no one checked my ID, either). However, that same person would have a hard time getting my phone out of my pocket.

Perhaps you don’t like the idea of voting through your phone. What if we use the phone to first notify everyone (96% of Americans now own a cellphone) via text that it’s voting day and, based on their registered location, where to find their nearest polling place. They could arrive at the polling station with their phone and when they give their voter ID number to a polling official (who enters it into a system), an SMS code pops up on the voter’s smartphone screen that the voter then uses to enter into a digital voting system to verify their identity, and then to submit their vote.

So What

My point is, the voting system we have, which is often different for each state, is inconvenient, unattractive to voters, and unreliable. We have the Presidential election arriving in less than 12 months. We have to fix this before then. As my polling pals reminded me this week, “At least it isn’t next November.” But it soon will be. It soon will be.

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, a more sensible approach to technology.