Mobile voting can ease polling place unease in the COVID-19 era

A bitterly divided nation heads into the 2020 presidential election with accusations of potential voter fraud, calls for delays and charges of voter suppression as state and local election officials cope with the ongoing threat of COVID-19.

Their challenge: Keep the polling places safe and efficient while providing more effective and trustworthy options for citizens.

Efforts to expand mail-in voting options because of COVID-19 were criticized for overwhelming election clerks and disenfranchising voters, whose ballots were either lost or not counted during the primaries.

Recently, government and media criticism of allowing more mail-in voting beyond traditional absentee ballots has cast a harsh light on flaws in the system.

I believe we can implement a better technology choice that guarantees a voter’s identity, keeps the vote anonymous and keeps voters safe from COVID-19. A mobile voting system that provides a supplemental option to in-person voting makes the most sense in this highly charged political atmosphere.

We have an archaic voting system

Efforts to provide voting options beyond in-person balloting have increased over the years to encourage greater turnout, which is still abysmally low. Ideas such as mail-in balloting, extended hours, weekend voting and other options have found mixed success, but still rely on old, outdated processes. The decentralized nature of the U.S. election process, in which individual towns choose their preferred voting method, has resulted in voting devices that range from paper ballots to mechanical voting machines to electronic voting via a touch-screen tablet.

One only needs to look at the 2000 presidential election recount to see this archaic process in action, as the term “hanging chad” entered the lexicon. Many efforts around improving the election process began as a result of the 2000 election, but now, two decades later, we still see the same process, and the same mistakes, in many locations.

Efforts aimed at expanding mail-in voting earlier this year during the primaries were troubling. In one Pennsylvania county, 6,000 voters were not mailed their ballots until the day before the election, preventing them from getting ballots postmarked before the deadline.

Across the nation, voters requested ballots but did not receive them in time to vote. Even when ballots were mailed in on time, election officials were overwhelmed with the spike in volume.

In-person voting: Long lines, masks, dangerous for at-risk populations

With the COVID-19 virus maintaining its hold on a large part of the country, election officials need to develop in-person voting plans that keep residents safe, but the potential for disaster looms. In many locales, a presidential election often results in long lines and wait times at polling centers, often with understaffed officials or volunteers working tables to verify voter registration.

Many of these volunteers are older Americans, members of the highest-risk population for developing serious complications from the virus. Not only will election officials need to ensure the safety of voters, but they will also need to make sure their own workers and volunteers are protected. This means developing more protocols, testing and potential disinfection procedures, which could extend the time it takes for people to vote.

Given the potential of a multihour wait with hundreds or more people in line, many citizens would likely simply choose to not vote, which would be a greater disaster to American democracy.

Mobile voting is secure

A mobile voting system allows registered voters to use their mobile phones and a verified app to record their vote. Using blockchain technology, an app can provide an audit trail that verifies the identity of the voter, and keeps their vote anonymous. Mobile voting systems can also include a paper record for additional security.

Early mobile voting programs have allowed an easier way for citizens and military personnel overseas to cast their ballots. The same is true for individuals with physical disabilities that could also be vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.

A 2018 mobile voting pilot program for citizens and military personnel overseas held in West Virginia provided a high rate of engagement.

Mobile voting has also proved more secure than other electronic voting methods, including web-based voting systems. Critics of electronic voting have lobbed accusations of potential hacking, but the facts tell a different story.

As of May 2020, Tusk Philanthropies has successfully completed 14 mobile voting pilots in five states with several mobile voting technology platforms and a mix of overseas voters and those with disabilities. It’s good to be concerned about election security, but mobile voting offers more security than existing electoral systems, which can include late or lost ballots, incorrect markings, machine breakdowns and other errors.

Democracy is strengthened when everyone participates

In these challenging and worrisome times, trust and faith in our government leaders is of utmost importance. The right for Americans to vote in a safe, secure and trustworthy environment is fundamental to continue the ideals that so many of our predecessors fought and died to protect.

When more citizens participate in the process, democracy is strengthened. Failing to explore new options to prevent a voting disaster this fall amidst a global pandemic could have grave repercussions on the future of this nation.

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