Online Voting Is Inevitable, But Will It Impact Turnout?

In a new "Predicting Our Future" podcast, entrepreneur Andrew Weinreich looks at voting via the Internet and the two essential questions that remain unanswered: whether more people will vote and what the risks are.

by / June 1, 2017
Flickr/Jamelah E.

Public agencies across the United States are already evaluating online voting. And while casting a vote via the Web may not be an all-inclusive answer, it's certainly a potential solution to our democracy’s far greater problem of low voter turnout, according to the creator of a new podcast on the issue.

"The Future of Online Voting," which became available on Thursday, June 1, is the latest entry in entrepreneur Andrew Weinreich’s ongoing “Predicting Our Future” series, which debuted earlier this year.

Spoiler: Weinreich, a startup founder who created pioneering social network website SixDegrees.com, thinks online voting is an inevitability.

But his new topic exploration also examines tech- and non-tech-centered solutions to voter disillusionment, including changing or expanding Election Day, having states award their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, and eliminating gerrymandering.

He acknowledges the podcast’s questionable timing — arriving as questions continue to swirl about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election — but said in its first episode, which examines the effect online voting could have on the role of the electoral college, the question continues to be timely.

“If I lost a presidential election in a country of 325 million people where fewer than 100,000 votes in a handful of states determined the outcome, I wouldn’t be asking myself why I didn’t win over some of the people who voted for my opponent. I’d be asking myself why wasn’t I able to get any of the 45.3 percent of the voting age population who stayed home on Election Day,” Weinreich said in the first episode.

In March, The Hill’s Reid Wilson reported that roughly 139 million Americans voted in the November presidential election — or 60.2 percent of those who were eligible to vote, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

“Before we even get to technology, there are things that are compelling that can be done, that should be done. We know that anything that makes people feel like their votes don’t count reduces the likelihood they will vote,” Weinreich told Government Technology, adding that eliminating the electoral college and gerrymandering are the most intelligent things to do.

But he acknowledges in the episode that getting rid of the electoral college is unlikely, and circles back to boosting voter participation.

Thad Hall, subject matter expert at applied research company Fors Marsh Group, said in the podcast that having the freedom to opt out of the voting process is a very American ability.

And while Weinreich called voting via the Internet “fascinating from a technological perspective,” he noted in the podcast that two essential questions about it remain: whether more people will vote and the risks involved.

The remaining two episodes, coming on subsequent Thursdays, examine election hacking, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, and voter apathy in a nation with thousands of elected officials.

Two potential options for replacing current voting machines include using next-gen optical scan systems or touchscreen systems with paper backup. Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest local election jurisdiction, may opt for the latter in its ongoing system redesign.

As for online voting, Rice University Professor Dan Wallach tells Weinreich in Episode 2 that he’s not a fan of because of its risks, and he questions whether designers can create systems robust enough to withstand malware and DDoS attacks.

Even if they did, Wallach said local governments, unlike well protected Internet companies such as Google, could still be an Achilles’ heel.

“Your local county clerk’s office doesn’t have that level of infrastructure. Your local county clerk’s office has some modest backbone connection that can be completely overwhelmed,” Wallach said in the second episode.

Weinreich added that he believes turnout will rise if online voting becomes an option, partly because doing so will transform the process — roughly comparable to the difference between branding and direct marketing, with online voting being the equivalent of direct marketing.

“You will begin to see at some point your church, your synagogue, your fraternity begin voting over the Internet. And we will become accustomed to seeing that,” he told Government Technology, admitting that when this will happen is not yet clear.

“For national elections, I think it’s far enough away that I couldn’t put a number of years on it,” he added, noting that local elections will likely become earlier adopters.

Risk, of course, is difficult to impossible to assess, though the May WannaCry ransomware attack and last year’s Russian hack of Democratic National Committee emails give many people pause.

Threats exist at all levels, Weinreich said — from when voter registries are compiled to when votes are cast, tabulated and reported, so agencies will need to be creative in establishing audit trails and performing aggression analysis testing.

Other options in online voting, he said, could include using an independent channel to verify that residents voted the way they did, such as having the system call voters to review their ballots, or a paper trail.

“[But] having a paper trail at a point where the votes are received could be too late," Weinreich said. "They could be tampered with at the point of entry. If you’ve got to provide a paper trail, what’s the advantage to voting over the Internet?”

Theo Douglas Staff Writer

Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.