Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
As we enter another presidential election with antiquated equipment, a new survey finds a growing appetite for online voting.
Heading into Super Tuesday—the day when presidential candidates hope to rack up delegates from a dozen state primaries—Democratic voter turnout is down. It’s way, way down compared to the 2012 and 2008 elections. There could be multiple reasons for this: Perhaps Democrats just aren’t as excited about their primary choices, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, as they were about electing the first black president. Maybe photo voter ID laws are having the pernicious, dampening effect on Democratic turnout that experts have been saying they could have.
It could also be that people are increasingly just over the voting process itself, nonplussed by the inefficiency of the act in an era when many data-collection activities are carried out with digital precision and efficiency. Plenty of evidence of this is shown in a survey released Monday by the market research group Edelman Intelligence. After speaking to roughly one thousand registered voters nationwide between January 28 and February 1, the firm found that a third failed to vote in at least one recent election, even though they intended to. Of that group, 45 percent ended up skipping voting because of time constraints—some actually showing up at the polls but leaving because the lines were too long.
Well over half of the survey respondents believed that people in general don’t vote because it can be a real time-suck. Breaking this attitude down by age and race, 63 percent of African Americans, 60 percent of Latinos, and 63 percent of people ages 18 to 34 all had the those same feelings about voting. Millennials and people of color are more likely to vote for Democrats, which may explain, in part, why a candidate like Bernie Sanders is feeling the voter-turnout burn-out. Republicans meanwhile, with their older, whiter voter demographics, are enjoying a voter-turnout revolution.
The survey was commissioned by the elections-technology company Smartmatic, which sells online voting equipment around the world. Unsurprisingly, the findings also reveal a heavy appetite among respondents for election upgrades, like internet-based voting. Even setting Smartmatic’s market desires aside, it’s undeniable that the nation’s voting infrastructure is woefully inadequate. A study last year from the Brennan Center for Justice found that basically every state is voting using machines that aren’t even manufactured anymore. States are attempting to mitigate some of the ill effects of this: Most now offer online voter registration services, and Oregon and California now automatically register all of their residents electronically when they reach voting age.
As voter registration crawls into 21st-century mode, the act of voting itself hearkens back to a time when Apple was still making fluorescent-bubbled desktop computers. As with any aged appliances, there are serious concerns about the reliability and security of obsolete voting equipment. Imagine the pandemonium if machines across all 12 Super Tuesday states broke down—it’s unlikely, but it would take the Hottest-Mess Election prize from even Florida’s 2000 Bush v. Gore conflict.
In California, Los Angeles County has begun taking steps to take its elections to the next level, but there are 57 other counties in that state that are in desperate need of election-equipment updates. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Neal Kelley, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, addressed this “threat” in a February 26 op-ed, writing:
We are quickly approaching a crossroads, and investments must be made. The chances of a gridlocked Congress allocating funding now are slim, and crossing our fingers isn't a plan.
California counties alone cannot bear the financial burden of purchasing the new systems. They need state help. Our voting systems were designed and engineered in the 1990s. We wouldn’t settle for 20-year old technology and reliability in our cell phones and computers; our voting systems should be no different.
The op-ed is the kind of panic button-pushing that really every state’s election administrators should be hitting. Many are, but aren’t being heard by the state legislators who are holding the purse strings.
In the report, “Election Integrity: A Pro-Voter Agenda,” Brennan Center for Justice election-law expert Myrna Pérez lists a number of things states can do to bolster the reliability of outdated machines, like requiring post-election audits to validate final vote tallies and having back-up plans in the event of a massive voter-machine meltdown. There’s not much that repeatedly pointing out these problems can accomplish, however, without adequate funding for solutions. Writes Pérez:
There appears to be little political will at the state or federal level to replace voting machines nearing the end of their life. In fact, election officials in 22 states have told the Brennan Center they want to purchase new machines by 2020, but lack the funds to pay for them. The Brennan Center estimates the cost of replacing the nation’s aging voting equipment may exceed $1 billion. With such investments looming, new machine purchases should be planned properly and include important considerations such as maintenance. If money is not allocated to replace the aging voting infrastructure, the risk that Election Day failures can affect election outcomes only grows.
Pérez cautions against online voting, though. Despite its popularity among voters, as noted in the Smartmatic survey, computer security experts say that moving voting onto the hackable web could prove disastrous for an election. (Some countries do currently use web-based voting.) Still, until the voting process is better streamlined so that people working multiple jobs or who lack transportation won’t get time-taxed for going to the polls, online voting must remain on the table for the U.S. The current generation just isn’t wired for waiting in long lines (for anything), and the next generation will be even less willing.
As California election officials Pedilla and Kelley wrote in their op-ed, “This problem will not fix itself.”