It seems that we have achieved a new reality in this country: perpetual election cycles. It seems that as one election comes to its eventual conclusion, the party activists of both sides start plotting the next election, enable by media pundits whose existence is largely dependent on their being a next election! There’s a virtual industry built around election cycles and estimates are that this year’s mid-term elections will see an unprecedented $2 billion in spending on all sides. For the mid-terms!
One thing that hasn’t changed in the perpetual politics world is the lack of participation in elections by eligible voters. Historically, around 55% of Americans who are eligible to vote cast a ballot during a presidential election year, which is pretty dismal and puts the U.S. in dead last place among industrial countries. Sadder still, during off-year elections or mid-terms as they are called, only about a third of eligible voters cast a ballot, and the remaining two thirds complain about it afterwards. It’s really appalling that so few voters determine the outcome of elections that will profoundly impact not just this country, but in many cases, the rest of the world.
A couple of decades ago, as technology was really taking off during the first dot com bubble, there was optimism that technological innovation would change the voting dynamic, providing ways for people to cast their votes more easily, which would encourage turn out. The idea of replacing the traditional paper ballot with an electronic voting machine which would speed up voting excited people and many of them envisioned a time in the near future where voters would be able to cast ballots online, from their comfort of their homes, eliminating the need for voting stations, cutting costs and increasing the participation rate. Remember, we’re talking the late 1990s here, so twenty years later you have to imagine we’ve made some progress, right?
Unfortunately, that has not proven to be the case. In 2012, 60% of all ballots cast were traditional paper ballots while electronic voting machines were used about 40% of the time. And not one vote during the 2012 elections was cast online. Many people are paranoid about electronic voting machines and downright hostile about online voting, seeing both systems as susceptible to manipulation and hacking. As you know, Americans love a good conspiracy theory and non-traditional voting systems are fodder for their fears.
That doesn’t mean, however, that online voting is never going to happen. Countries around the world, including our neighbor to the north, Canada, are testing online voting as a means to improve voter participation. And, if you look outside of political elections, many other industries have embraced online voting as a way to lower costs and increase turnout. Most public companies now offer the option of letting their shareholders vote online for the annual meeting. Thousands of organizations, such as unions, school associations and private clubs, use online voting to simplify things for their members and it has proved to be successful.
There are numerous technology companies that offer online voting systems but the paranoia of the political class is holding back even the idea of testing online voting for U.S. elections, and it doesn’t help that some in the cyber-security world share that paranoia. They claim that no system can be made fool-proof or hacker-proof enough to gamble on online voting for something as important as the President of the United States. They are less concerned about somebody trying to change the outcome, which is virtually impossible, and more concerned with the mischief that could be caused by hackers with no political agenda who would see the online voting system as the ultimate target of opportunity. Me, I’m not as concerned and see the idea of online voting as an inevitable evolution in how we cast ballots. It won’t come from the top, I think, but instead will be the result of the public clamoring for a simpler way to participate in the process and it will probably start in California, home of the Silicon Valley and technology innovation.