As of this week, 16 states have postponed their primaries, the only exception being Wisconsin. If the COVID-19 pandemic is not brought under control, even the apparent November contest between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump is at risk. This is not the moment to hope for the best, but to plan for the worst, as the U.S. democracy may not survive unscathed a postponement of the presidential election.
If an increasing number of people are able to work from home considering the present circumstances, then why can’t we also vote for president from the comfort of our living room?
The answer is that the U.S. does not have a system in place to ensure the continuity of the democratic process during national emergencies—but it should. Some countries have effectively deployed online technology in elections. Consider the experience of Estonia. The country has built an advanced digital society, where its 1.3 million citizens can apply for benefits, obtain medical prescriptions, register their businesses, vote, and access nearly 3,000 other government digital services online. Could the Estonian model be implemented in the U.S.? Probably not.
The first impediment to online voting has to do with differing state procedures, making reform difficult and subject to myriad political pressures. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported in September 2019 that 31 of the states plus the District of Columbia allow some form of remote voting, though only in the case of voters facing “unique challenges” as defined by the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), typically members of the military, in addition to people with disabilities. Depending on the state, votes may be cast over email, fax, or a web portal.
The second complication is scalability. One thing is to offer an online voting option to Americans facing extraordinarily challenging situations, and quite another to enable more than 150 million registered voters to do so. Moving the elections entirely online would require years of planning and massive financial resources.
In addition to the technical challenges, a digitized online system for all voters could be subject to abuse by government officials or companies. The use of cellphone location data for the purpose of tracking the spread of the coronavirus, for instance, has raised concerns. Moreover, even the most powerful computers equipped with the smartest algorithms may not be able to ensure that all eligible citizens would be able to vote—as is the case with the current system in some states where people cannot prove their identity. And not everyone eligible to vote has access to technology: In 2019, 19% of Americans did not have a smartphone, and 27% did not have broadband at home, according to Pew Research Center.
The single most important concern, however, involves privacy and security. Everything is traceable in the digital world, thus online ballots could never be fully anonymous. Moreover, voter coercion can be more severe at home than at the ballot box, where only one person at a time is enabled to operate a voting machine and the process is overseen by election officials. No digital system is fool-proof—especially in this era of cyberwarfare and cyberattacks. Authentication protocols can be strengthened, but that would further undermine anonymity. Voatz, the company that provides the voting app used by military personnel and foreign residents in mostly municipal elections since 2016, has been beset by cybersecurity issues, according to a recent paper by MIT researchers. Many of the vulnerabilities remained unresolved: West Virginia, the only state that used the voting app for its primary, eliminated the option for this year’s.
Given the challenges and the little time left for establishing a comprehensive technology system in the midst of a pandemic, states should consider a three-pronged approach in order to avert a postponement of the November election, or staging one that excludes unacceptable numbers of voters.
First, enable voter registration through different channels, including reasonably secure online options like email or a web portal. The pandemic will undoubtedly make it harder for the hardest-hit segments of the population to register, and it is precisely those groups that enjoy less access to the internet. Thus, in addition to online registration procedures, telephone and mail registration options should be made available.
The second action is to build on existing state-level absentee ballot systems by extending deadlines and offering both physical and distance ways of voting. Legislation should be passed to consider people who may still be quarantined in November as facing “unique challenges” that might prevent them from voting unless they are given an option other than visiting their usual polling station. New York has moved to expand mail-in voting by offering absentee ballots to all New Yorkers, as recently announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Finally, states should plan to open polling stations during several days so that everyone can comply with the social-distancing guidelines throughout the primary and general election process. This could be facilitated by assigning registered voters a specific day for voting.
These three steps represent pragmatic and sensible adaptations of the usual voting procedures—and do not require a wholesale reinvention of the existing voting infrastructure. But we must start planning now, without waiting, yet again, until it is too late.
Mauro Guillén is a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the forthcoming book, 2030.
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