For too long we have tolerated the idea that elections should be difficult. If you think voting is inconvenient, too bad for you, say pundits. And if elections are expensive and a logistical nightmare to run, oh well, at least there aren't too many of them.
America's newest state, our southernmost state, has a different idea. Right now, as you read this article on the Internet, citizens of Honolulu are voting in America's first all-digital online and telephone election. Residents of neighborhoods with contested board seats received pass-codes in the mail, along with a Web address and a phone number allowing them to vote at any time, day or night, from anywhere in the world.
While I typed that paragraph, two people just voted. They may have just gotten home from work, or they may be at school, in the library, or even overseas. Someone else will vote at 3:00 am in his pajamas. And all of their votes are being secured using military-grade encryption technology: faster, more reliable, and more secure than if they had voted on paper.
At Honolulu Hale (City Hall) last week, I met a blind Hawaiian woman very interested in her neighborhood board. This month, for the first time ever, she will be able to vote in privacy: a telephone system, not her relative or neighbor, will record her vote and read it back without bias, without disclosure, and without fear of dishonesty. For the first time, she receives her Constitutional right to a private ballot.
I have had the privilege to help build some pretty interesting technology products, including MSN and Windows, but none of them has ever excited me like this. We've used the best technology in this country to increase access to shopping and checking accounts. Now it's time to get serious: we are increasing access to democracy, to the vote.
At dinner recently, a prominent Hawaiian legislator, sad about fading industries, told me that all America has left to export is our values. I love our values too, but had to protest: our technology industry remains one of our country's brightest stars. I am so proud, I told him, so delighted, to play a small part in the bringing together of election science and digital technology -- to protect and advance our finest value, democracy.
In this case the technology manufacturer, a California company called Everyone Counts (where I am Chief of Products and Partnerships), isn't just advancing the art of government. It's also saving taxpayers money, enfranchising voters with disabilities and soldiers overseas, and making life easier for hard-working citizens who may not have time between work and family to go to a polling place but who care deeply about their communities.
What better use of technology? Who would see democracy stuck in the past, a relic of the age before secure encryption, before cash machines, indeed before telephones?
Who would continue our present system in which less than one third of soldiers overseas can successfully vote? Who would leave secure digital communication to the military, while subjecting our democracy to the insecurities of a cardboard box full of papers in someone's trunk?
The introduction of technology to any process is scary. But the time has come. We have been banking online and shopping online for over a decade, and conducting important business by phone for a century. Digital technology, while no panacea, is the best method ever invented for securely delivering information and decisions.
The people of Honolulu, capital of our newest state, have shown true American leadership in pioneering the all-digital online and telephone election. I am deeply grateful to be a part of this project. It had to happen, and it is happening. We will all look back at this event in Hawaii as the most obvious, most natural, least revolutionary, yet most necessary step for American democracy, this blossoming springtime of 2009.
Aaron Contorer is Chief of Products and Partnerships at Everyone Counts, Inc.