It Is Well Past Time for Elections to Be Online

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Tomorrow a minority of those who are eligible will take time off, drive through traffic, and wait in lines to take part in one of the most artificially annoying obligations of United States citizenship: voting.

Many who make that inconvenient trek will treat the process like a multiple choice test they haven’t studied for, either voting the party line or guessing at the right answers. The smarter citizens will use absentee ballots, take their time, study the initiatives, and pick those they vote for based on qualifications rather than party or appearance.

The folks who will have the greatest impact, though it’s unintended, will be the ones who don’t vote at all, leaving the running of the country up to chance (which hasn’t been working that well of late). It continues to strike me as incredibly odd and stupid that the most technologically advanced superpower still has a voting system that is antiquated, unsecure, easy to compromise, and embarrassingly unreliable.

I’ll share my thoughts about electronic voting this week and close with my product of the week: Tango, a new printer from HP that showcases how folks should design a product for the home.

Voting Is Incredibly Important

Our lives depend on the people we elect and the initiatives we pass. They determine the laws we must live under, whether or not we go to war and have a draft, our access to healthcare, how much we pay in taxes, how much debt our country assumes, and our rights as citizens (and this isn’t an exhaustive list).

Voting should be one of the most important things we regularly do in our lives, and we know thousands have died preserving our right to vote. Yet we treat voting as if it is an optional donation to a charity we really don’t like that much.

The result hasn’t worked out well for us, as more of us disapprove of the president than approve of him. However, compared to the U.S. Congress, he is doing extremely well, because around four out of five folks disapprove of Congress. Based on the approval ratings, we really don’t have a democracy at the moment.

Voting in the Digital Age

Think about it: We bank online, our medical records are on the Web, and we get our paychecks through direct deposit. Facebook knows more about you than your mother likely does, and Google knows more than that.

There is a good chance that Google or the NSA knows how you want to vote even before you do, and many of our pre-election concerns are about whether China, who apparently likes Democrats, or Russia, who apparently likes Republicans, will corrupt the election.

We talk about how sad it is that only a small minority of folks actually vote, and yet we leave in place one of the most unnecessarily time-intensive, unsafe, and annoying voting processes in existence. Even though politicians seem to be driving you to vote, their behavior suggests that they really only want you to vote if you’re likely to cast a ballot for them.

Given all the misinformation we get prior to an election, it also seems that the last thing politicians want is an informed and active electorate. In short, it would seem that our democratically elected politicians don’t really believe in democracy — they just want to win, and they really don’t care that much whether we like the outcome or not.

In fact, given those approval ratings, if we were given the chance — and if we were both informed and motivated, which we largely aren’t today — we’d likely vote out everyone currently in politics.

The Massive Costs of Elections and Access

What it costs to hold an election is scary. A national election now costs around US$1 billion each time, which is money that otherwise could be spent on anything from reducing the deficit to funding defense or healthcare.

Here in Oregon, where I live, we have a mostly mail-oriented system that saves an estimated $3 million per election (and we get a significantly larger voter turnout). Still, we have to print and distribute the ballets and voter information packets that more easily could be posted on authorized websites — you know, kind of like the ones many of us have used to sign up for healthcare or to manage highly secure medical records.

Think of the times when there has been a mistake on the ballot or voter information packet. On the Web, it would be trivial to fix, costing tens of dollars, whereas reprinting and redistributing corrected ballots or packets now costs millions.

We did invent the Internet after all. However, by not going online to vote, we are wasting about $1 billion per national election and millions for each state election to get an unsecure, totally crappy, experience.

Now there is a belief that poor folks don’t have smartphones, but that belief is not up to date. Given that many of the services providing relief for the homeless and the poor now are largely Web-based, there have been a number of aggressive programs to supply otherwise disenfranchised people with smartphones.

Given the lack of transportation and the need to register were you live, many of these folks don’t/can’t vote today. Most of those who did not have smarthones would be able to vote on free PCs at libraries, which might be easier to get to than voting locations.

What Voting Could Be Like

If you’ve ever taken a good online survey, electronic voting largely would be like that. You’d see a digital voter pamphlet for each candidate, including party affiliation. You’d see a description of each initiative, with pro and con arguments and a list of organizations and people supporting each view. The voting field likely would come right after that.

You could vote individually or as part of a group, much like my wife and I vote now, with the opportunity to engage in a real-time discussion on each issue, resulting in a far more measured response than the typical multiple-choice guess in an isolated booth.

This mid-term election took my wife and me between 15 and 20 minutes by mail, and we didn’t miss any work, drive in any traffic, or wait in any lines.

An online system even could allow you to change your vote up to election day, something that is nearly impossible now.

For authentication, there could be a dual factor system that would use your smartphone as one of two ways to identify you. There could be post-election validation to report back how you actually voted. So, if something were wrong with the system and you either cast the wrong vote, or the process was hacked and your vote corrupted, you’d know and easily could report the problem.

If the number of such reports were material, there could be a re-vote, which also would be digital, and would cost a tiny fraction of what holding another election the traditional way would cost.

Think about it. How do you know your vote was counted accurately using today’s system? You might have thought you voted for Hillary Clinton last election but had your vote go to Donald Trump. Other than faith, you have no real validation that your actual vote was counted, let alone counted correctly.

Given that you would be able to vote early, much as many now do with absentee ballets, it also would avoid the problem of elections at a national level being decided before most of the folks on the West Coast even have an opportunity to vote. (This used to really piss me off when I lived in California.)

Wrapping Up: It’s Time to Move Voting Into the Digital Age

Particularly given our concerns that a foreign government may corrupt the election — but also because way too many people just don’t vote, and the cost of traditional elections is both insane and way more painful than necessary — we need to move into the digital age for voting.

I believe that if elections were carried out online, we’d save a ton of money, avoid a ton of aggravation, get more people to vote, have more people voting intelligently, and end up with a more capable government — one that wasn’t bankrupting the nation.

Don’t you think it is about time we took elections online? Oh, and for those who think we can’t secure the Internet, I have one word: “blockchain.”

We can harden against denial of service attacks now even at a state level (which we need to do anyway). If we really can’t secure the Internet, why the heck can I view my medical records on the Web, given HIPAA?

Oh, and a number of countries use Internet voting today, most notably Switzerland and Estonia. Yes, the U.S., the technology capital of the world, is behind Estonia. That’s just embarrassing.

My personal sense is that politicians in power don’t want to make voting easier, and those making the billions we are wasting on elections don’t want this change either. However, if we are going to truly ensure our democracy, I believe that we need to move voting into the digital age.

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

I’m actually more excited about the approach HP took to create this thing than I am about the printer itself. Ever since reading the book Technically Wrong, which explains why most of the products being created by tech firms suck, particularly for women, I’ve been looking for a strong counterpoint.

The Tango HP Printer is that counterpoint. Created by a mixed team of male and female engineers who focused mostly on women — very unusual in what is clearly a male-dominated segment — they created a printer that is designed to blend into a home rather than stand out like a sore thumb.

HP Tango Printer

HP Tango Printer

This printer if fully integrated with a smartphone app that allows you to control the printer both locally and remotely. It also is encased in a way that makes it look like something that more naturally belongs in a home rather than an office, when the printer is not in use.

With massive improvements to ease of setup and use, this printer is designed the way I think most products should be designed — not in response to the loudest voice on the team, but with a focus on the needs of the user. It even integrates with Amazon Echo, so you can use your digital assistant not only to read off things like directions and recipes but to print them on command as well.

HP Tango Printer home

The HP Tango Printer is designed with the home user’s needs in mind.

In the end, what makes the Tango a great printer is that HP’s designers rethought printers in the context of the home. It is uniquely focused on what women want, for once — and you know what? I actually like it just fine. The HP Tango Printer is my product of the week, and it must be popular because it is sold out at Amazon. However, Best Buy appears to have some available.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

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