Byline: Jefferson Graham, USA TODAY
Amid all the outcry about whether to vote in person or ia the mail, what about on the device where you're probably reading this now? Why not the smartphone in your pocket?
Leading tech entrepreneurs such as Andrew Yang and Bradley Tusk have called for online voting as a way to increase voter participation.
And this year, in a very limited way, despite the many critics who say that online voting in unsafe and susceptible to hacking, it's actually happening for the 2020 presidential election.
Military, certain disabled and overseas citizens will be able to vote on a mobile device for the presidential election in West Virginia, South Carolina and Umatilla County, Oregon.
Mac Warner, the West Virginia secretary of state, says he wanted to find a way for the military, primarily, to be able to cast their votes and have them tabulated on a timely basis. Because it's a small section of the electorate, he was willing to take a chance on the system.
Before going wider, he needs to see that the technology works. "I'm a traditionalist," he says. "I still think voting in person is the most secure way of voting. But I'm advocating for the people who can't get to our polls."
The West Virginia system is being run through a company called Democracy Live, which competes with the firm Voatz, which worked with West Virginia for military online votes in 2018.
How it works: You download an app, use biometrics to verify your identity, vote and submit. The vote is printed out at the election office to have a paper ballot to compare to.
In 2018, the system was so new that very few in the military used it then. Warner says and he expects greater turnout this time.
When he was running for president in the Democratic primary, Yang called it "ridiculous" for people to stand in line for hours to vote in "antiquated voting booths," when it's "100% technically possible to have fraud-proof voting on our mobile phones today."
And Tusk, an early investor in ride-hailing company Uber, has put his money where his mouth, investing $10 million to fund mobile voting in states. The average participation in local elections is 10% to 20%, and if people could turn to the technology we all own, instead of having to line up at polling places or mail in ballots, "we'd see greater involvement," he says. "The technology is there. Let's use it."
But critics say Yang and Tusk are ahead of themselves. The potential for hacking is just too great.
"Internet voting would be very dangerous because there's no way to make it secure," says Andrew Appel, a computer science professor for Princeton University. Moving to online voting would "open the doors to hackers to change millions of votes," he adds.
His opinion is not a minority. Verified Voting, a nonprofit organization aimed at promoting the "responsible" use of technology in elections, says on its website that its mission is to "Halt the spread of internet voting and other insecure technology."
In West Virginia, citizens need to request an absentee ballot if they want to vote by mail. And to do that, the state lets people apply for the ballot online and then mails it out to them.
Warner says this is working out well, so far. Some 106,000 people have requested ballots, and 46,000 have already been returned. In the state, as many as 700,000 people generally vote, he says.
He's comfortable trying it with the small numbers of military, overseas and disabled citizens, but says if it went mainstream, "it'd be a honeypot for the Russians to penetrate our system."
Indeed, King County, which includes Seattle, had a vote-by-smartphone test in January for a small conservation district, working with Tusk. But while participation doubled, the election supervisor isn't ready to try again soon.
Kendall Hodson, the chief of staff for King County Elections, said the small number of the voters who participated didn't provide enough information to push forward with more mobile tests.
"Not only do we feel like the sample size is too small, but we also heard from many, many voters who were concerned about voting this way or that all of our elections would be conducted this way going forward," he says.
"From what we heard, it was clear to our office that voters are overwhelmingly not ready to move to all electronic ballot access and return.
"And we have no intention of doing any sort of mobile voting with our regular elections."
Tests in the Iowa Democratic caucus this year did not go well. The party used a smartphone app to tabulate the results, hopefully, to speed up the counting, but the app was overwhelmed, and results were delayed by days.
The Democratic National Committee said it would never use this particular app again in a primary.
And in Los Angeles, new voting "ballot marking" machines that resembled iPads were introduced for this year's primary election. They weren't connected to the internet and required paper ballots to complete the vote. The idea was that the tablet would help confirm voter registration, but there were problems. Mashable called voting this way "a mess,"
Despite the setbacks, Tusk believes there's no reason mobile voting can't be mainstream by the 2028 presidential cycle. "Our job is to prove it is secure, that's how this thing happens."
He's been involved in 15 trials so far, and none have been hacked, he adds.
To the critics who say that a national election by mobile phones would be just too enticing for a foreign country such as China or Russia to want to target, he has a suggestion: give him a chance and let him focus on local elections at first.
"If you're uncomfortable with congress, let's go local. Other nations couldn't care less about City Council elections."
USA TODAY reached out to the Democratic and Republican parties for comments but got no response.