It’s 2014, and the United States still hasn’t quite figured out this whole voting thing. Just ask Al Gore, whose shot at the presidency in 2000 hung in the balance over a collection of weird hole punches. Or ask the people who had to stand in line for nearly eight hours just to cast a vote in 2012.
You know what would be awesome? If we could vote in the same way that we do pretty much everything else these days: by smartphone. It’s not just a matter of convenience. According to a study from Rice University, people who cast votes via smartphone through a web-based platform may make fewer errors.
The study asked 84 people to participate in mock elections with different voting methods. The researchers designed their own smartphone-based app, comparing its function to paper ballots as well as to a VoteBox electronic system that has been used in elections before. The elections were fictional, though the ballots gave candidates Democratic and Republican affiliation. In one condition, participants were directed to vote for a certain candidate to test whether they could correctly use the system. In another condition, voters were directed to select their own candidates after reading a voter guide.
Smartphone owners made fewer errors when voting on the mobile system, researchers found. The smartphone voting system, the researchers write, “resulted in a substantial increase in voting errors for smartphone nonowners and a notable decrease in voting errors for smartphone owners.” Particularly, it enhanced the ability of smartphone owners with lower levels of education to vote accurately.
So voting via iPhone wouldn’t necessarily be better for everyone. But for folks who already tap away at a smartphone all day, it may be less baffling than an unfamiliar voting machine. “The current model of voting in the United States, with any system, often requires voters to adapt to unfamiliar systems to participate,” the researchers write. “This study provides evidence suggesting individuals should vote on familiar systems for optimal usability.”
However, the researchers didn’t control for whether this increase in accuracy was only a function of the familiar design (they intentionally designed the app with common iOS layouts and buttons) or whether it was a function of using the device itself. It’s possible that electronic voting machines could be made easier to use if they mimicked app designs people were already familiar with.
The researchers aren’t suggesting the United States government adapt their exact prototype app as a voting tool. In fact, this paper cautions that Internet-based voting, mobile or not, probably isn’t feasible in the near future (online voting carries some security risks, though Estonia managed to make it work). But it doesn’t seem crazy to think we could design a way to securely vote via phone at some point, even if it’s just a matter of using a government-issued smartphone tethered inside a voting booth instead of a traditional voting machine. Plus it will help ensure people actually cast their vote for the candidate they intended to vote for. You know, democracy and stuff.