It was just past 7 PM on Election Night, 2012. I was in front of my computer, a dozen browser windows open to various local news outlets and social networks, feverishly making memes for the ACLU. “Don’t Leave the Line,” they said in English and Spanish. “By law, if you’re in line when the polls close, you must be allowed to vote.”
With less than an hour until polls closed, and wind chills well below freezing, thousands of people across our state were still waiting in line to vote. We’d received word that some officials planned to lock their doors at the 8PM cutoff, so while some of our staff took calls to voting rights hotlines, our attorneys were on the phone with judges and election officials, and I worked the social networks, trying to spread the word so that no one gave up their rightful place in line.
This circumstance was not unique to Pennsylvania, or to the 2012 election, and while intentional attempts to suppress votes are at least in part to blame, the larger problem is a system and an infrastructure woefully inadequate to handle even the 60% of eligible Americans who choose to vote.
Our system of elections in the United States is a joke. Voters participating in the most vital core function of democracy must do so by visiting their municipal buildings, staffed by volunteers, often to fill out a piece of paper. In some states–including Pennsylvania–polling places might literally be inside private homes. This is not the system of elections one expects from a society where a person can order a yoga mat from their smartphone and have delivered to their hands 12 minutes later.* It’s past time for the United States to embrace electronic voting.
* Yes, I have literally done this.
Yesterday, President Obama briefly mused on the idea of compulsory voting, igniting a media firestorm, and rightly so. There are many reasons–from basic ideas of liberty to the fact that states, not the Federal government, legislate voting rules–that compulsory voting doesn’t seem a good fit for the United States. But press coverage has unfortunately overlooked the great benefit that typically accompanies compulsory voting: increased voter access.
Australia is the most-cited example of compulsory voting; voters in Australia face a monetary fine and possible jail time if they fail to cast a ballot–but the Australian government literally flies polling places into the remotest parts of its wilderness, bringing them to ranchers and Aboriginal communities. The Australian government operates a “mobile voting team” who will literally visit people at home to take their ballot, and voters in various circumstances can vote early, vote by mail, or vote by phone.
Australia also holds its elections on a Saturday, while the United States clings to Tuesday, a day chosen based on travel requirements from two centuries ago. Most modern democracies have their elections on weekends, or make their election day a holiday, and they all beat the United States for percent turnout. At least part of our famously low turnout, often attributed to “voter apathy,” owes to people who simply can’t make time in their day around work, child care, and other obligations. [pullquote]To look at the way we have designed our elections, you’d think the United States really doesn’t want everyone to vote[/pullquote]*.
*In some cases, you might be right.
Meanwhile, Americans can order pizzas by talking to our televisions, without interrupting our video games. We can do virtually anything from our laptops, tablets, and smartphones–including many critical government functions. While experts wring their hands over the potential problems of voting online, we can use the Internet to file or access tax returns, view our social security records, and of course register to vote. All of these systems have found ways to safeguard against hacking and fraud. Yet we’ve found no way to bring the most essential component of our democracy into the 20th century, let alone the 21st.
Hacking and fraud are the most frequent arguments against online voting, let’s not forget that a huge share of state elections–at least 21 million votes in 20 states in 2012–are trusted to electronic voting machines that have been proven easy to hack or fool, manufactured and maintained by a single corporation with questionable motives and ethics.
Other nations have embraced online voting; Canada has experimented with online voting in many towns and cities, and Estonia has opened online voting to its entire populace for ten years, resulting in a surge of voter turnout; nearly a third of the population chose to vote online in their most recent election.
One US state, Arizona, experimented with Internet voting in one election. In 2000, the Democratic party opened its Arizona primary to online voting. After lawsuits and threats of hacking, the election proceeded with only minor problems, but the practice was never repeated. That might have something to do with its result: A 500% increase in voter turnout, including an 800% increase among African American voters and a more than 500% increase among Native Americans. [pullquote]In a state like Arizona, and maybe in the United States in general, increasing minority voter turnout is probably not a good way to sell your program.[/pullquote]
It’s absurd that Americans can’t cast a ballot online; but this is the perfect time to change it, and and the Obama administration is the perfect choice to make that change. Consider the President’s embracing of online communication, from Buzzfeed gifsets to Funny or Die. Consider the contributions this administration made to the targeted killing program, taking even warfare online. [pullquote]If the President can kill someone on a video screen from 6,000 miles away, I should be able to cast a vote for or against him from my smartphone.[/pullquote]
It’s past time the US embraced online voting. The Internet’s best use isn’t making memes to remind people of their right to wait in line and cast a paper ballot; it’s to empower those people, and millions like them, to vote without standing in a line in freezing weather. The question isn’t whether voting in America should be compulsory, it’s why those who choose to vote shouldn’t have that ability in the palms of their hands.