The greatest threat to our democracy is not foreign interference in elections, or political polarization, or fake news. It is our voter turnout. A democracy is supposed to be a system of government by the whole population, but the 2016 election turnout was just 55.7%. That’s a failing grade in democracy, and it is unacceptable. A more flexible approach to how we vote could change these turnout rates and position our elections to function effectively for the future. For example, voting apps could increase participation in elections by eliminating barriers to casting a ballot, but so far implementation of such technology has been slow in the United States due to concerns about security and vulnerability. Voatz is the only voting app available on the market so far, and it has been met with pushback, despite the fact that its performances have not indicated that the app poses a significant security risk and its benefits will save our democracy, not destroy it.
Voatz is a “mobile elections platform,” according to the app’s website. The app makes use of the technology available on modern smartphones, such as fingerprint and facial recognition. The app must authenticate users before they can vote. This process includes a scan of their driver’s license or passport, a selfie, and fingerprint recognition. Voatz also creates a paper ballot for each electronic ballot recorded. The app’s security is regularly audited by third parties and the company even offers a “Bug Bounty,” a cash reward for users who are able to identify bugs within the app.
The app has been used in several United States elections so far, primarily aimed at allowing military personnel who were stationed overseas to vote. Pilot programs have been successful in West Virginia, Denver, and Utah. However, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently published a report on Voatz in which they claimed that the app “has vulnerabilities that allow different kinds of adversaries to alter, stop, or expose a user’s vote.” In a response to the report, Voatz argued that the researchers depended on an old version of the app which had never been used in an election and dismissed the validity of the report’s other claims. The public remains skeptical despite Voatz’ reassurances, as fear of foreign interference in United States elections continues to rise.
It is true that any app implemented in elections in the next few years will likely not be perfect. However, our system now is also not perfect. We depend on the security of our postal system for absentee and early ballots. Our voting machines are decrepit. More than ⅓ of districts in the United States are using voting machines that are more than 10 years old. In 2018, 14 states were using machines that leave no paper trail. If machines don’t create a paper record of the votes counted, there is no reliable way for election officials to confirm the accuracy of the count.
Do not make the mistake of believing that new means more vulnerable or that making a change means taking a risk. The machine in your pocket is newer, faster, and more secure than the machine in your polling place. We clearly have the technology to protect the data we value. Millions of Americans, for example, use mobile banking apps which store their sensitive financial information. On an individual level, the security of your bank account is far more consequential than the security of your vote. Americans trust the security of their banking apps because they work; they are secure. Voatz might not be the perfect app yet, but it has the capability to be secure, too. The app won’t improve unless we start to use it and test it. Besides, beginning to offer voting by app as an option will improve our democracy.
On March 3rd, 2020, I voted for the first time. It was a hassle to get to my polling place in Roslindale, which is less than eight miles from my dorm on campus. I’m an eighteen-year-old who was excited to vote for the first time, who has access to public transportation, and who was completely free from commitments, academic or otherwise, after noon on Tuesday. Many adults do not have the luxury of so much free time and easy access to transportation. But this shouldn’t matter; voting is a right. It is not supposed to be a privilege bestowed upon those who have a car, whose work hours are flexible, who do not have children to look after, and who have the time, patience and physical ability to wait in long lines for hours on end. These are the obstacles that keep our voter turnout rates low, but they are obstacles easily overcome by apps like Voatz.
In these past few weeks, as COVID-19 has spread, states like Louisiana, Georgia, and Ohio have been forced to postpone their primary elections. The states’ decisions are prudent in the face of this pandemic, but they would be unnecessary if our system of voting was more flexible. This public health crisis has demonstrated that our system is not adaptable enough. We can’t delay elections forever. We can’t delay progress forever.
Yes, technology in politics has exacerbated threats to our democracy. The spread of disinformation on social media, the increasingly targeted ad campaigns, the disastrous Iowa Caucus—these are examples of technology making democracy dysfunctional. Democracy becomes dysfunctional when our ability to accurately assess the will of the electorate is impaired. But app-based voting is not one of those technologies that blurs our vision of what We the People of the United States really want. On the contrary, modernizing our voting mechanisms and hindering voter disenfranchisement improves our ability to assess the will of the people. Our democracy might be founded on age-old ideals, but we can run it on new tech.