Consumer Reports: Democracy proves challenging in digital age


Considering the importance of elections in the United States, the country sure does make voting a challenge. National elections are held on a Tuesday in November, a workday for most people.

In 11 states and Washington, D.C., you can register to vote on Election Day, according to Consumer Reports. Other states have registration deadlines of eight to 30 days before an election. Some states have expanded voting by mail, online registration, absentee voting and similar practices. But others have become more restrictive: Thirty-three states request or require voters to show identification at the polls, and 17 of those states request or require a photo ID.

When everything from buying airline tickets to filing federal income taxes is routinely done online, why is voting for most Americans still such a manual, show-up-in-person, paper-ballot-based process?

Both Democrats and Republicans have experimented with online voting. In the 2000 presidential primary, the Arizona Democratic Party offered online voting to registered Democrats. And in the Utah GOP's presidential caucus this year, registered Republicans were able to vote online. Consumer Reports is a nonpartisan organization that doesn't endorse any candidate or party, but it does believe the voting process should be simple, safe and secure. But are American voters ready for online voting?

Are they even interested? To find out, the Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 3,649 voting-age U.S. citizens in March.

The results showed that a considerable number of respondents were receptive to the idea. Thirty-nine percent of likely voters said they would choose the option to vote by computer, tablet or smartphone in the 2016 election rather than vote by traditional methods.

But is internet voting really a pragmatic solution to low turnout and other electoral concerns? Consumer Reports' survey found that there were significant concerns among respondents about the privacy and security of an online voting system.

And even though the survey found that many people would choose to vote online, it also suggests that the option might increase the number of likely voters by only 7 percentage points. That may seem like a small bump, but the popular vote in several modern presidential contests has been close. For example, in Bush vs. Kerry in 2004 and Obama vs. Romney in 2012, the margins were 2.47 and 3.86 percent, respectively.

Testing online waters

Some forms of internet voting already exist in the U.S. All 50 states and D.C. send ballots to overseas voters electronically, and 32 states and D.C. allow electronic ballot returns via fax, email or the web from some voters, although those voters may have to waive their right to a secret ballot. In 2012, Alaska was the first state to establish an electronic voting system for all absentee voters, whether overseas or not. Alabama recently unveiled a system that allows residents who are overseas at election time to vote on a special website.

Lori Steele, the founder and CEO of Everyone Counts, the company that created the software used in Alabama, argues that in addition to making voting easier, her company's system offers multiple advantages over traditional methods. For one thing, she says, "security is exponentially increased over any other kind of voting because each ballot, as well as the electronic ballot box, has military-grade encryption."

She also claims that web voting is more accurate — no more hanging chads or marks on a paper ballot that may be difficult to interpret. Web systems can also save money and can be upgraded or reconfigured as laws change, Steele says.

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