Few topics are as controversial in the U.S. as voting. But regardless of politics, it's hard to argue against the fact that America's voting system, at least in many parts of the country, seems outdated. In the last presidential elections, 60% of all votes were still based on paper systems, according to ProCon.org. In the era of advanced technology, there has to be an easier solution for both voters and the government.
Take, for example, a $230,000 mobile voting challenge launched by Ohio businessman Pete Martin. Its aim is to encourage development of best-in-class mobile technologies to streamline the voting process. In addition, companies like Microsoft are now providing mobile solutions to streamline voting. These are promising developments but more importantly, initiatives like these should encourage us to actively examine how mobile technology could help to modernize and democratize voting in the U.S.
Mobile technology is ubiquitous today. Even some people who may not have regular access to a computer often carry a smartphone. Phone-based solutions can be ideal for enabling voters to quickly and easily get information about candidates, register to vote, and check in at polling centers. Some states like Alaska have already started experimenting with this.
But add to this the capability to vote directly off your mobile device and you can free people up from one of the most limiting factors in voting today, which is the need to physically go to a polling station.
This can be particularly important for low income workers afraid to take time off from their jobs to vote (even though employers are required to give it to them), single mothers with small children but no daycare, people who live in remote rural areas where the nearest polling station is difficult to reach, and others who may be disadvantaged in some way.
If such voters have the availability to cast their ballot via their phone, this could not only make voting a lot more convenient but encourage more of them to vote, which is a big win for democracy. For some perspective on why this is significant, consider that while voter turnout in presidential elections has gone up, the turnout for midterm elections has declined to its lowest level since World War II, according to data from the United States Election Project analyzed by the Washington Post.
Another benefit would be in the counting of ballots. Unlike paper-based systems, a mobile solution would make the process easier and faster. It could also, arguably, be more reliable than physical ballots (remember the controversial hanging chad in the Florida elections during the Bush-Gore contest?).
There are also the cost savings to government (and therefore taxpayers) from the elimination of thousands of polling stations, not to mention back office and technical support. In 2014, for instance, states employed 731,000 poll workers in 114,000 locations, according to a report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and these numbers can be even higher during presidential elections.
Finally, remote voting can be a potential solution to the problem of voter intimidation. By enabling people to vote in total privacy and out of sight of anyone else, the likelihood of voters being coerced goes down. It's not perfect since those looking to intimate voters can still approach them at their home, work, or online, but that involves a lot more research, effort, and risk than simply ambushing people at a polling station.
There are obviously risks in mobile voting such a lack of a paper audit trail and voting fraud. If a voter's phone is hacked, his or her vote could be falsified, but that can be addressed with the right technology. As many other applications, such as mobile wallets, have evolved to become more secure, voting too can become a commonplace and safe activity. That's exactly why initiatives like the $230,000 mobile voting challenge matter, which can hopefully serve as an incubator for robust technology in the future.
In any case, the evolution of our archaic voting system toward mobile platforms is inevitable. The only real question is how fast can we get there? If the public and our government pushes for it, hopefully sooner than later.
S. Kumar is a tech and business commentator. He has worked in technology, media, and telecom investment banking. He does not have any affiliation with the companies or individuals mentioned in this article.