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In defense of mobile voting—Russian hackers be damned

Critics say electronic voting could be dangerous. But the greater risk to our democracy may be doing nothing at all.

In defense of mobile voting—Russian hackers be damned
[Photos: Fayiz Musthafa/Unsplash; blickpixel/Pixabay; Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash]

Last week, the most populous county in Washington State announced the first U.S. election in which every voter can cast a ballot using a smartphone. For residents of Seattle and surrounding cities, the experiment could be a game changer. Americans face innumerable obstacles in getting to the voting booth: job responsibilities, family obligations, Netflix addictions. No wonder our election turnout is among the worst in the developed world. Suddenly, 1.2 million people were given the ability to vote without leaving work or getting off the couch.

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Of course, the reaction was loud and swift. Some people loved the idea, thrilled to see the power of democracy placed directly in people’s pockets. Others recoiled, afraid that hackers, foreign or domestic, could infiltrate the election and taint the results. As with any political issue, the hyperbole on both sides grew by the hour.

As the person who is sponsoring this experiment—my foundation, Tusk Philanthropies, is leading the national effort to develop mobile voting—I think we’re overcomplicating the issue. Let’s start with the basics:

Our government today doesn’t work. It’s polarized, dysfunctional, and untrustworthy, at virtually every level of government. We can’t reach consensus on any major issue, whether it’s climate change, guns, immigration, healthcare, or dozens of others. Eventually, after enough crises and enough frustration, both sides risk reaching for more radical solutions. The only way to keep the country together is to make government functional again.

The status quo is a disaster. We know that most people will not bother to vote under the current system. Yes, turnout in presidential races is respectable, but average turnout in most primaries is under 15%—with the majority of voters coming from the far left or the far right, depending on the district. General elections aren’t much better. Because of gerrymandering, the primary is often the only game in town. And if you’re a member of the minority party, it can feel like there’s no point in voting at all. We can hold all the Rock the Vote concerts we want to encourage people to vote, but the current system isn’t going to deliver results unless we clear away the stumbling blocks.

Our broken system is self-reinforcing. We know that the goal for virtually every politician is to stay in office at all costs. Today, that means keeping the small group of ideological voters who show up in the primary happy. But if a broader swath of the electorate started voting, politicians would quickly adapt and start reflecting their views. Policy outputs are shaped by political inputs and little else. If you want different laws, you need different political incentives.

Smartphones are ubiquitous. Estimates show that somewhere between 75% and 90% of American adults own a smartphone. That means virtually all of us are walking around with a supercomputer in our pockets—a supercomputer we already use for banking, communication, entertainment, errands, and pretty much everything else. If people could vote on their phones, many of them would do so.

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Both sides can agree on pretty much all of the above. Here’s the rub. At Tusk Philanthropies, we think elections can be securely conducted over phones. So far, eight different jurisdictions in five states have made mobile voting available to voters (typically, they’re deployed military and people with disabilities, verified using both facial recognition and biometric identification). So far, all eight audits have come back clean, showing each election was secure (in one of the West Virginia elections, hackers attempted to break in, but the system was secure and repelled the attack, as designed).

Many people aren’t convinced. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has warned against online voting, as has the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in its recent report on Russian election interference. Some computer science experts argue that regardless of the first eight tests of mobile voting, no machine is completely secure and therefore we should only use paper ballots.

They’re right: Using technology means introducing some risk. But the status quo isn’t safe, either. Confusion over paper ballots gave us George W. Bush (and the accompanying Iraq War) in 2000, and multiple paper ballot elections over the past few years have been tainted by the inability of election officials to reach the same number during recounts. Under the current system, tens of millions of Americans are effectively disenfranchised by their inability to take time off from work or to spend money on transportation. For millions more, it simply isn’t worth the effort. Writing these people off is a choice.

More important, the choice between security and participation isn’t binary. We want elections that are secure as possible, and we want turnout that’s as high as possible. It’s true that without secure elections, there’s no faith in the outcome. But without sufficient turnout, we lose faith too. The system remains controlled by the extremes, and nothing gets done. Neither option is acceptable—one undermines democracy, and the other makes it inoperable.

Saying that only security matters is like saying that you don’t want anyone to drown, so let’s fill in every swimming pool with concrete. It may solve the problem, but it defeats the purpose.

In a perfect world, we should all want the same thing: elections that are both safe and convenient. Perhaps it’s not the world we live in now, but that’s why these experiments in mobile voting are so important—to stress-test the concept and strengthen our cybersecurity capabilities in more controlled settings. In the case of the King County pilot program, for instance, the stakes are relatively low. While the Greater Seattle area includes some 1.2 million eligible voters, the upcoming election—for the King Conservation District Board of Supervisors—is perfectly obscure.

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Or take West Virginia, the first state to offer mobile voting. In the 2018 primaries, we started with deployed military from two counties being given permission to vote on their phone. That went well, and the scope expanded later that year to include deployed military from 24 counties for the general election. This week, Governor Jim Justice is expected to sign legislation that will allow all voters with disabilities to participate on their phones, another logical progression that makes voting easier for the people discriminated against most by the current system. We’re funding that project too, and if it goes well, we can see what makes sense next.

Defending the status quo isn’t smart. Neither is demanding wholesale change overnight. If the technology exists to make democracy more democratic, then let’s explore all of our options—carefully and thoughtfully, but before it’s too late.


Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, and political strategist. His foundation, Tusk Philanthropies, is a nonprofit group dedicated to fighting hunger and fixing democracy by making it easier to vote.

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