Jacob Hauschild, MJLST Staffer
Clay Aiken won. We true believers don’t care what FOX had to say about it. When the phone systems were allegedly logjammed on that 2003 day, millions of American Idolaters had their faith in the democratic vote shattered. As one author wrote, “Technology is thwarting democracy. . .”
Yet, even as our democracy has been so thwarted by encroaching technology, one Washington district believes there Ain’t No Need to Worry. Instead of protecting voters from technology’s perils, the King Conservation District of Washington is embracing technology in the democratic process, allowing roughly 1.2 million Seattle area voters to vote online, via a smartphone, tablet, or computer, in an election for a board of supervisor position. Last year, the King Conservation District had only a 0.2% participation rate in its Board of Supervisors’ election. By allowing voters to vote this year from their couches, administrators hope more residents will participate, strengthening the district’s democratic capacity.
Of course, such an expansion to voter accessibility is no laughing matter. On one hand, voter turnout in the United States is concerningly low. Of no help are the 24 states who have introduced heightened voting restrictions over the last decade. On the other hand, these kinds of restrictions are, in theory, meant to make our elections more secure, as recent elections have quite notoriously resulted in claims of voter fraud and international interference. And experts have major concerns about the effects of online voting, which include challenges in voter authentication, risks to ballots in transit (i.e. ballots that are manipulated while transferred between the voter and the election office), and the threat of malware infiltrating electoral systems.
Online voting advocates are responsive to these issues. Many believe that blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin, may be the magic key to these security concerns. Others are far more cautious. Plus, in addition to security risks, there is the ever-present possibility that the voting technology fails to function as expected. For its part, the King Conservation District is utilizing a mobile voting platform through Democracy Live, which has FedRAMP certification, providing a government standardized approach to security assessment, authorization, and monitoring of cloud services.
For now, other voting districts aren’t exactly lining up to make similar changes to voting accessibility. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman recently indicated after consultation with cyber experts from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security that “electronic transmission [is] far too risky for voting and could leave voter information and election infrastructure impaired.” Even Julie King, the Elections Director for King County itself, announced that mobile voting is “not technology [she’ll] be rolling out for King County in upcoming elections.”
Will this technology grow more widespread in the future? And if so, how does that affect the legitimacy of our democracy? For a glimpse of that future, we need only wait until February 16. Or, if you don’t intend to tune into the American Idol premiere, you can opt instead to observe mobile voting’s impact as early as February 11, when the King Conservation District polls close. That election’s success—or failure—could fundamentally change how Americans vote in coming elections.