Thinking Outside the (Ballot) Box

We shouldn't have to stand in long lines to vote. If Estonians can cast their ballots over the Internet, why can't Americans?
by | November 20, 2012

This year's ballots are mostly counted, and the excuses from analysis-challenged pundits and defeated candidates are fading. Still fresh in many voters' minds, though, are the long lines they had to stand in to cast their ballots. Across America, the privilege of voting is exercised at 10,000 different locations. We can't even say that "the system is broken." There isn't a system.

Most of us line up to vote on the first Tuesday in November for reasons that don't have much to do with modern life. Congress established our familiar federal Election Day in 1845, when the United States was largely an agrarian society. That was 167 years ago. Now we have cars. Grocery stores are open 24/7. We even have (gasp!) the Internet. In 1850, there were just over 123 million Americans, and more than half of them were ineligible to vote. In 2012, we are about 310 million strong, and more than 131 million Americans voted this month.

We need a better way to vote. Brazil has one: In its presidential election in 2010, 135 million electronic votes were cast, and the results were available only 75 minutes after the polls closed. But you still had to go somewhere to vote. The goal should be a voting system available nationwide via the Internet. They've done it in Switzerland and Estonia; we can do it from Santa Cruz, Calif., to Eastport, Maine.

An ideal system might closely resemble the way many Americans now deal with their banks. Your bank gives you a card with a number and a password: you can pay bills and check your account from anywhere via the Internet. Why can't we get similar cards and passwords and vote from anywhere? If I can access my bank accounts from Starbucks, why can't I access my ballot--with the issues relevant to my registered address--from Florida rather than have to return to, say, New Hampshire in November? Why does voting in 2012 have to involve paper, machines and people?

Electronic voting is not a new idea, of course. Paper ballots are scanned and counted by electronic tabulation devices. Many polling places use "direct recording electronic systems"--computers, some with touch screens--to record votes. But you still have to go somewhere to vote.

Congress has mandated two tries at Internet voting. The first, in 2000, was deemed a success although a very small sample of voters participated. The second was cancelled in early 2004 due to concerns about voter anonymity and possible threats from hackers. Congress requested a third attempt in 2007, limited to the Department of Defense, when the U.S. Election Assistance Commission was to have created new guidelines for absentee voting and registration. The EAC's website states that the National Institute of Standards and Technology has created a Voting System Test Laboratory Accreditation Program, but offers no clue about when this third attempt to validate Internet voting might actually happen.

Fraud is often cited by opponents of Internet voting, as it is with every other form of voting. And while a recent study found only a little more than 2,000 cases of alleged voter fraud nationwide since 2000, no voting system can ever be perfectly safe: Even dipping your finger in purple ink isn't foolproof if there's Clorox nearby.

To minimize the possibility of fraud, I would ask the National Academy of Sciences to set some guidelines, and then use the resources of the National Security Agency to monitor the cybersecurity of a single national system, whether government- or contractor-operated. Such a system could be adopted by any state or local jurisdiction at will, and using it would be voluntary for individuals. There would not be a "national identity card" issue.

Maybe change is coming. There were signs of progress this year: In New Jersey, courtesy of Hurricane Sandy, you could request a ballot by email and return it the same way--or you could fax it in. That brings voting technology up to 1865, when Giovanni Caselli introduced the first commercial telefax service, between Paris and Lyon. We can do better.

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