LOS ANGELES — Our social lives are conducted on the Internet, along with purchases, entertainment, and cab hailing.
So why are we still using paper ballots to vote for elected officials?
As the long U.S. presidential election cycle comes to an end, and we either vote by mail or stand on long lines Tuesday to cast our ballots, many of us are probably thinking the same thing: really, why not just click a few buttons on a website to make our choice known?
“That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard,” said Erika Malaby of Los Angeles, on a 90-minute wait Monday for early voting. She had registered to vote by mail, but her ballot never arrived. “So here I am,” she said.
Joya Shelton of Los Angeles knows how it goes. She brought along a backgammon board to keep herself busy with a friend while waiting. She’s not looking forward to a shift in how we vote.
“I believe the old school way of voting works,” she says. “Pencil and paper. With electronic voting, I’d be concerned about hacking.”
The risk in moving to online voting: giving up privacy and the "voter fraud," that many candidates and elected officials have talked about during this cycle.
How we vote
We moved from the oral ballot (“aye”) to the anonymous paper ballot at the turn of the 20th century over 116 years ago. Not much has changed, except that we can now vote earlier and by absentee. Many states now allow for registering online and submitting the ballot by letter. Oregon and Colorado are 100% via mail-in.
Some 32 states and the District of Columbia allow some kind of online voting, either voting via email, or electronic fax or portal, says an August study by the Verified Voting Foundation, Electronic Privacy Information Center and Common Cause.
Some countries let you vote online
Estonia, Chile and Uganda are countries e-voting company Smartmatic lists as past clients on its website. Switzerland also has experimented with online voting.
Caitriona Fitzgerald, the chief technology officer for the Electronic Information Privacy Center (EPIC) says don’t expect U.S. election officials to start using the same technology.
“I never like to say never, but there are significant challenges,” to e-voting in the USA, she says. Those countries have far smaller populations and “there may not be as much international interest in affecting their elections as they are here.” (The United States government has accused Russia of working with Wikileaks to hack into Hillary Clinton's e-mails.)
Those laws enacted at the turn of the century that are now being used to outlaw “ballot selfies” were originally written to ensure that party bosses couldn’t examine your ballot and pay for your vote.
Online voting “makes it hard to forestall vote-selling, because people could much more easily prove for whom they've voted,” says Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law School professor. “ Countries unlike the United States that do not emphasize ballot secrecy might be better able to embrace Internet voting.”
What the future holds
Eight years into the future, in 2024, it’s projected that we’ll all be riding around in driverless cars and quite possibly preparing to fly to Mars with Elon Musk.
So online voting then?
Ric Militi, who runs the app Zip, which tallies people’s responses to questions, thinks a simple registration with social security or another unique number would make online voting possible.
“That’s the only way to prevent multiple votes,” he says. “Once it’s counted, it can’t be counted again.”
EPIC's Fitzgerald looks to online for voter registration and printing out paper ballots--but no further, because online voting erodes the possibility of a private ballot, she says.
The main thing holding back change is fear of the unknown, says Jonathan Bright, a research fellow at Oxford University in England. “People are afraid of making major changes to the system.”
Additionally, government’s track record with new technology is not good. Remember the hiccups for signing up to the Affordable Care Act when it debuted in 2013? Many couldn’t sign it to the website.
“Look at any government agency, and their technology will be at least 10 years old,” Bright says. “It sounds easy, but making electronic voting work is a much harder problem than making Facebook or Google work.”
Speaking of those tech giants, why not just farm out the vote to them? Facebook touted a “Register Now,” button in News Feeds, and Google is pointing us this week to where to vote.
When we register to vote, we give our names, ages, address and gender, just like we do when we get Google and Facebook accounts.
But, “Do we really want Google running the election?” says Fitzgerald.
And for all the talk about moving to a new way of voting, Zusette Gallegos, 20, likes it just the way it is.
“I like to come in person,” she said, outside the Los Angeles County Registrar office, voting for the first time. “It’s better.