New York City

To increase voter turnout, bring elections online

E-voting in New York should be more accessible and secure.

Someone casting a vote electronically

Someone casting a vote electronically Shutterstock

New York City and New York state both suffer from very low voter turnout rates. New York’s congressional primary this year saw just 11 percent of eligible primary voters participating.

The lack of civic participation, a consequence of antiquated election laws that purposefully lead to voter suppression, has prompted countless calls to action from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and The New York Times editorial board.

Recent news that de Blasio has filled the role of the city’s first chief democracy officer, charged with overseeing civic engagement through voter registration drives, demonstrates both the need for innovation in solving New York’s crisis of democracy – and the lack thereof in the solutions currently being pursued, or even discussed.

Appointing a cheerleader for voting misjudges the root cause of the problem. Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, the newly appointed chief democracy officer, who has been tasked with increasing voter turnout by 1.5 million votes, will be committed to organizing civic lessons and citywide voter registration drives, a Band-Aid offering a temporary fix. At best, this will only move the needle incrementally.

The problem isn’t voter apathy. New Yorkers are some of the most politically engaged and educated American citizens. The problem rests with the inaccessible ballot, not with the voter.

Good government reforms that are promoted by activists and influential voices such as the Times' editorial board, like early voting and automatic registration, recognize that reality and correctly seek to improve ballot access.

But these proposals fail to address the crux of the problem, which Fonseca-Sabune noted when characterizing herself as a busy working parent who missed several elections trying to fit voting her schedule: Many New Yorkers are simply too inundated with their personal and work lives to find the time to vote in person.

In light of that, a simpler and more forward-thinking solution to voter engagement is to invest in election technology and allow for mobile voting. E-voting would provide busy New Yorkers who can’t afford the time to visit a polling site an opportunity to cast a ballot.

Already, over 86.4 percent of adults in New York state have smart mobile devices or access to the internet at home – not including at work – and can pay credit card bills, trade stocks and purchase insurance on phones, tablets or their computers. Why can’t another important decision be available at everyone’s fingertips? This would, like voting by mail, also be fully accessible to people with disabilities. And it would eliminate the arbitrary factors that often shape voter turnout, such as whether it’s raining or long lines at polling places. For voters without internet access, votes could be cast by mail, which is a system that has boosted turnout in states that have adopted it, such as Washington, Oregon and Colorado.

Security is nearly always the counterargument. But the question is: secure relative to what? The current system of hanging chads, lost ballots, voter registrations? Purged voter registrations led to thousands of New Yorkers being told they were not on the voter rolls during the September statewide primary. Consider the mishandled paper trails, mistakes made by election officials, such as the infamous Palm Beach County “butterfly ballot” that may have cost Al Gore Florida in 2000, and the security risks and routine malfunctions of the electronic and mechanical machines that we currently use to count votes. Most alarmingly, the lever machines, which New York used for decades, have an error rate of 3 to 4 percent, while the optical scanners that replaced them still have a 1 to 2 percent error rate, according to a Rice University Study.

Conversely, as Estonia enters its 14th year of online voting, not a single major security incident has been recorded. It is not without its threats, as the Baltic country has had to contend with Russian aggression. But it has demonstrated that internet voting can be secure, accurately counted and private.

Here in the United States, many states have served as laboratories for democracy, entrusting digital means of civic engagement. Thirty-two states offer a voting by email, electronic fax, or an internet browser for absentee ballots cast from overseas. This past primary saw the first application of blockchain voting – technology that creates a public ledger – in a federal election as West Virginians abroad used facial recognition and scanned ID images to submit digital ballots through a mobile app. New York state already allows for voter registration online and much of the election process requires electronic systems, so why not move a step further?

What’s more, the success of online voting for participatory budgeting provides a proof of concept for New York City. This past year, New Yorkers in council districts that opted to democratize budgeting decisions were able to do so not only at a polling place, but online.

This method can and should extend to elections. An option to modernize and improve the citizen user experience by offering online registration and voting, ballot information, and schedules with reminders and alerts is possible if we plan for it. We should begin to imagine a balloting process where a voter can use voice or facial recognition to verify themselves, submit an encrypted ballot on a mobile app, and request a paper ballot or a receipt of their vote – a voter-verified paper or digital trail accessible by only them, the voter.

This is not a call to election officials to rush or act reckless, but instead it is a reminder to invest in the future of democratic processes. Election security and upgrades need to go hand in hand. We can be investing in securing newer technology rather than outdated technology, which is the current plan. The technology for online voting exists and will continue to improve to offer even greater security, anonymity and verifiability. After all, if we can build secure financial systems to protect trillions of dollars, we can engineer secure voting systems to protect millions of votes.

It is very likely that in the near future New Yorkers will be casting ballots online or via mobile devices. So why not begin discussing, investing in, phasing in, implementing and securing an e-voting solution­­ on a limited scale?

The biggest impediment to internet voting isn’t technological, but rather political. And the bigger threat to our democracy in New York isn’t a Russian hacker, it’s voting accessibility.