Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Should America allow voting by smartphone?

As ironic and as counterintuitive as it may sound, the “phone” part of a “smartphone” is likely one of the device's less important and least used actual function. People are using their smartphones as their primary digital cameras these days. The smartphone is also commonly used as a primary timepiece, rather than a traditional wristwatch. The standalone MP3 player has largely been replaced by the smartphone too and the same thing is happening with GPS navigation and mobile gaming. And then there is everything to do with Internet access, including web browsing, email, social media, news reading, blogging, vlogging and more.

With smartphone ownership and use at an all-time high, one technologist is positing a very compelling question: why can't we vote by smartphone too? The convenience factor is undeniable, because it means that voters can simply cast their ballot over the Internet is a truly digital and remote fashion. It doesn't matter if they are at home, at the office, on the commuter train or enjoying a cold beverage at the local cafe. As long as they can get online, access the voting portal and get verified, they can cast their ballot and they can do so weeks before the official voting day.

In many ways, this is an extension of the argument for more widespread Internet voting. There are inherently many advantages and disadvantages to online-based voting systems, like the importance of being able to properly authenticate the identity of voters and to ensure the secure and confidential transmission of the voting data over the network. These are all valid and they are just as applicable to smartphone voting as they would be to voting on an Internet-connected PC.

Interestingly enough, however, voting on a smartphone may arguably offer even more security features than a desktop computer. It has been observed that even among people who do not own a personal computer of their own, they may be more likely to own a smartphone. This allows for greater accessibility. What's more, a growing number of modern smartphones already integrate biometric verification technology. The Apple iPhone 6 and the Samsung Galaxy S6, for instance, both feature a fingerprint reader for user identification. Facial recognition technology is also available. But are these security features enough to guarantee the integrity of the authentication process?

The argument made by Alissa Walker does not call for biometric authentication specifically, but this is an area that is being explored in many areas across the United States. New Mexico is one example.

There are barriers to widespread adoption of smartphone voting, such as the fact that every state has different election rules. Assuming that all security and integrity guarantees are met, voting by smartphone could become a fit option to replace postal voting, offering people the opportunity not only to order their absentee ballot online and through a smartphone, but also the ability to submit that ballot through a smartphone. The goal here is to completely digitize the absentee ballot.

An initiative named Vote by Smartphone from the group Long Distance Voter is going to offer a prototype pilot test as part of the upcoming 2016 Presidential elections in the United States. The test will be limited to just two states, but it could serve as a real-world demonstration of how this could work. Voter identity could be verified using an e-signature, like the DocuSign electronic signature technology for authentication.

Further exploration and testing is needed, but Vote By Smartphone sounds like a compelling idea and could represent a part of the democratic future in America.