We produced this series of posts on Internet Voting or “iVoting” and its challenges because there is increasing interest in understanding how to innovate our election infrastructure to ensure increased integrity, lower costs, and improved ease, convenience, and dare we say delight in the process of voting.  Here are the prior installments:

We concede it can be a potential and prospective advance in voting technology—a next frontier of elections for the 21st century if you will. Some even speculate this new way of exercising our civic duty and civil right could expand participation.

So far, aside from recognizing it’s an increasingly important topic of discussion, we haven’t delved much into why so many seem to be advocating for iVoting.  While we’re focused on process, platform, and even policy aspects of election technology, we haven’t attempted to develop any expertise on the sociological (People) aspects, and we remain a bit wary of the Political aspects.  But its worth examining this a bit, and so we turned to an outside authority for some assistance and have drawn upon her insights for this installment on iVoting.

There are certainly plenty of other, perhaps less expensive innovations to increase election integrity and improve secure without using the Internet. And we hope we’ve persuaded you that if security and integrity is your primary agenda, the Internet—as of today—is not your best choice to do so.  But nevertheless, the beating of the iVoting drum is increasing.  Why? Well it turns out, apparently one reason iVoting is garnering so much attention is largely, wait for it, …political.

Yes, that’s right: the fifth “P” of the five-Ps of the election ecosystem, the one we prefer to leave to others, Politics, may be the underlying driver.  You see, there’s a strong belief of many that the implementation of iVoting systems will lead to an increase in voter participation. We are not going to even venture into what the OSET Institute believes or doesn’t believe in this regard, but we’re happy to delve into this a bit as part of the overall consideration of the challenges and merits of Internet-based voting for U.S. public elections.

Policy makers and activists have reasoned that people will be more likely to vote if it is more convenient for them, and iVoting (or Smartphone voting or "Pajama voting") is nothing if not convenient. Even for those who want to vote the old fashion way at the polls there will be shorter lines for them because more people will have voted remotely.

Now there are many different theories on whether this logic actually bears out in real elections, but before we get into that I want to take a moment and explain why we are writing about this.  To this point, I hope I’ve made it clear that the OSET Institute doesn’t dabble in political science, thus outcomes of elections and so changing the demographics of the electorate isn’t even remotely connected to our charter and mission. What we do care about however is legitimacy. The legitimacy of a government, at least in a democracy, stems largely from the consent of the governed, that means you and me. We give this consent through voting and the more people who vote, so goes the theory; the more people actively consent to our democratic system and the more legitimate the resulting government should be.  So, while the OSET Institute isn’t concerned about the precise demographic effects of an election, it does care about voter turnout. With that noted, let’s briefly consider whether iVoting actually could increase voter turnout.

That’s a difficult question because there aren’t yet many examples anywhere of iVoting in continued use to develop any statistics, but the research that is out there doesn’t seem to support an increase in voter participation.  Research into the 2000 Arizona Democratic Primary and the 2004 Michigan Democratic Primary, which both used iVoting, doesn’t show an increase in voter participation (the source for this is a book, and access is behind a pay wall or requires buying the book). While far from definitive, this research throws some doubt on the notion that iVoting will be a silver bullet to improve voter turnout, or whether it would help at all.

So, given the small amount of elections employing iVoting to assess, we might look to other convenience methods as a better indicator of the potential impact of iVoting. For example, Oregon adopted vote-by-mail (VBM) in the late 90s and researchers have looked into its effect on the electorate for years.  We maintain an office in Oregon and several of our team regularly cast their ballots by mail, but that’s anecdotal and notwithstanding the ease and convenience observation, we can consider the research.  In fact, researchers have found that while VBM didn’t necessarily bring large numbers of new voters into the electorate, it did help retain those who had voted before, resulting in an increase in voter participation (this source is behind a pay wall) The net of it, goes the argument, is that if VBM can increase voter participation by making it more convenient to vote, then maybe iVoting can too.

We can imagine, that in an "always-on" society of the digital age, regardless of the participation argument, society will increasingly demand an easy, convenient means to participate in our democracy that goes far beyond registering to vote online and preparing to vote using online resources and services.  Some suggest those of the digital age will “skip out” on their civic duty if it’s made unnecessarily difficult or is relegated to 19th and 20th century ways and means.  And many will reason that at some point, a logical progression of VBM will be iVoting, arguing that we once paid our bills and filed our taxes through regular postal mail, and today we pay our bills and file our taxes online, so we should be able to cast our ballots similarly. They are convinced that if that cannot be done, participation will continue to fall.

What all this seems to tell us is that the impact of iVoting remains uncertain; we simply don’t know what effect it will have. What we do know is that if it is ever going to be implemented in state elections, not just in political primaries, it has a long way to go—from all five aspects of the ecosystem: People, Process, Platform, Policy, and Politics. I’d love to read your comments on this aspect—while not in the center of our lane, it certainly is a catalyst for how innovation research may proceed.

So, your comments are encouraged as always!

Election Infrastructure Analyst
Office of the CTO