Online Voting: Will We or Won't We?

Early experiments in internet voting have gone badly. And there is bipartisan consensus that to do it right would require perhaps decades of planning.

by Doug Livingston, Akron Beacon Journal / November 7, 2016

(TNS) -- Quaneia Murphy, a University of Akron marketing and management major, voted for the first time this March. The St. Vincent-St. Mary graduate knows precisely which Akron polling location will accept her second ballot on Tuesday.

Destinee Long, a study buddy who grew up in Columbus, doesn’t.

Long is both undecided on her major and where — or how — she should vote.

“Yeah, I’m registered,” Long said. “But I don’t know where to go. I’m just confused about the whole process. Really.”

The two 18-year-olds are part of a generation that could use cell phones and tablets before they could walk. So, as the digital natives become civic-minded adults, it only feels natural that voting — from registering to casting ballots — should move online with them.

“It’s more up-to-date. And it might be a little easier, too,” said Murphy, who keeps a search engine handy when completing class assignments. “If young people don’t understand the issues that they’re voting for, other than the presidential race, they can look it up as opposed to just checking a box.”

On various fronts, technology is creeping into the democratic process.

Ohio is ahead of the curve. Starting in January, residents here may register online to vote.

By this time next year, every Ohio board of elections is expected to adopt digitized polling books, substituting hefty three-ring binders for electronic tablets that make checking whether a voter is in the right place a cinch. In some states, digitized polling books are making it possible for voters to cast ballots anywhere in their respective counties, eliminating the “right church, wrong pew” problem on polling day.

A Democrat-backed bill in the Ohio House would automatically register voters and update their status each time they renew their driver’s license. Dead on arrival in the Republican-held statehouse, the automatic registration bill still fairs a better chance of passage than online voting.

Early experiments in internet voting have gone badly. And there is bipartisan consensus that to do it right would require perhaps decades of planning.

Click to register

Ohio Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Hudson, is happy to announce that a bipartisan bill he introduced last year will allow residents to log onto the secretary of state’s website and register to vote starting next year.

Today, voter registration must be done by hand. Forms are requested by mail, printed online or picked up at BMVs and libraries then returned to boards of elections, sometimes bouncing back only days before deadlines.

“I’m glad that we’re getting on board with [online voter registration],” said Ada Staley, a fashion design student at UA who turned 18 in July but has been too preoccupied to register.?“I think convenience was a big issue for me,” said Staley, who splits her time between a weekly job search, a “pretty heavy” college class schedule, a childhood hobby of horseback riding and generally becoming an “independent adult.”

Staley debated too long whether to register in Summit County, where she now lives, or Stark County, where she grew up. “I’m pretty disappointed that I didn’t register in time because I feel so strongly about this election,” said Staley, who is concerned about what Republican Donald Trump has said about women but has no vote, at least this year.

Offline, for now

Andrea Felicelli and Oliver Lake, another pair of millennials attending UA, figure its high time for online voting — as an option, not a mandate.

“It would be more convenient,” said Lake, who voted early by mail this year. He said he trusts the internet more than the post office to deliver his vote on time.

Felicelli, a frequent online shopper, has become accustomed to uploading her personal address and credit card number.

“I feel pretty safe. Not 100 percent. But it’s a risk,” Felicelli said of online banking, shopping and the prospect of voting.

While young Americans and Democrats are more likely to push for online voting, there is broad, bipartisan consensus that any system of internet polling should be ironclad, impervious to hackers and free from glitches.

“Voting is a unique transaction because it’s secret and anonymous and it’s a one-time event that cannot be done over if something massive and widespread goes wrong,” said state Rep. Katheen Clyde, a Kent Democrat who previously worked in the secretary of state’s office and keeps a close eye on election law. “It’s not like banking online. It’s not like ordering takeout online. If something goes wrong in those financial transactions, they can be reviewed and fixed. Voting and elections are not like that.”

The fear — which Clyde and LaRose share — is that foreign or domestic hackers might undermine an election and — more alarming than the theft of a single identity — public confidence in the democratic process.

Before tackling security, though, election officials must work out the bugs.

Utah fail

In the presidential primary this year, Republicans in Utah took online voting for a bumpy test drive.

According to the The Salt Lake Tribune, 40,000 Republicans participated but 10,000 votes were denied or discounted.

Voters mistakenly thought they had registered in time. Others misplaced PIN numbers needed to vote online. Some emails carrying the codes were treated as junk mail by spam filters.

Ultimately, such mistakes can further erode confidence in an election system already considered “rigged” by Trump and some of his supporters. More than a third of Americans already “have little or no confidence the election will be fair and open,” according to public opinion polling from the Pew Research Center. This includes 56 percent of Trump supporters.

“This is something where we need to be very careful because people need to be confident that their vote counts and that the process is done in a stately and organized way. I don’t think that voters have confidence in online voting yet. And I don’t think they will until those technological questions are answered,” said LaRose, who will consider online voting but, like Clyde, thinks Ohio is many elections away from implementation.

Polling online polling

The case for online voting is gaining steam, even if older voters continue to reject it.

Driving reform are digital natives in the youngest generation of eligible voters: millennials.

In a September poll commissioned by Digital Third Coast, a tech agency, 80 percent of respondents said online voting would make them at least somewhat more likely to vote. More than 90 percent said voting online would save time, and 75 percent said it should be another option for the public.

But the poll, conducted online by Soliant Consulting, is admittedly skewed toward millennials, women and — as young voters more often are — Democrats. America, however, is split much more evenly by gender and party affiliation than the online poll’s 60 percent female respondents and nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans.

In a more representative sampling of America, a 2015 Rasmussen poll found that a national majority still rejects moving voting online and thinks that doing so would invite fraud.

Still, the poll of reform-minded Americans illustrates the attitudes of the future. Again out of whack with national demographics, 52 percent of respondents are 33 years old or younger. This generation is the least likely to vote and, apparently, the most likely to say they’d do so if given the chance to do so online.

Telling is the generational and partisan support for online voting. The poll found 75 percent said online voting should be an option. The naysayers were twice as likely to be Republican. By age, 35 percent of respondents over 50 and 22 percent below 34 rejected online voting.

Automatic

The next showdown on the election front will be automatic registration.

Automatic registration provides that on voters’ 18th birthdays, when they renew driver’s licenses or otherwise interact with the government, the information they provide would be used to register or update their voting status.

Here, as with other changes to Ohio’s voting system, Clyde and LaRose split.

“It’s not something that we should be pursuing in Ohio now,” LaRose said.

“Freedom to vote also includes freedom to not vote, and that means to not register or be part of the process,” said LaRose, citing religious or other personal beliefs that would force some groups, like the Amish, to participate.

LaRose also questions whether legislation pushing for automatic registration would supersede the state constitution, which in the Republican’s opinion requires residents to register, not for the state to register them.

But a bill to automate the registration process is exactly what Clyde has introduced in the Republican-controlled legislature, which makes a habit of letting Democratic laws languish on a shelf.

“[Automatic registration] is the next wave of voter friendly efforts happening nationally,” Clyde said.

In the past year, California, Connecticut, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia have become the first in the nation to add residents to voter rolls automatically, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Ohio would join them with the passage of Clyde’s House Bill 181, which hasn’t received a hearing since it was introduced 19 months ago.

©2016 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.