Sleepless in Seattle

Mobile voting rolling out to 1.2 million people

Starting this week and ending on 11 February 2020, voters throughout King County — which includes the Seattle area — will be able to cast their ballots online in a local election for the first time, using a mobile phone or touch-screen device.

This is the first election anywhere in the US in which every registered voter is eligible to vote online. The aim of the initiative is to keep costs down and boost voter turnout, which tends to be disproportionately low in the US because of voter apathy.

It’s an interesting development that online voting will be available for the King Conservation District Board of Supervisors election, a niche contest that has typically required people to request a ballot to vote. These district elections have typically seen less than 4% of the electorate turnout in the past few years. Historically, voters were asked to go online and request a ballot, which was posted to them, to fill out and mail back to complete the process. Sending ballots to all 1.2 million voters in the district was expected to drain a fourth of the agency’s budget. So, county officials stumbled on online voting as a pilot for boosting participation. If successful, this could be a step toward expanding electronic access in all elections.

King County isn’t the first in the country to offer online voting. Other counties have successfully implemented forms of voting using smartphones. In the 2018 midterm election, West Virginia allowed about 150 voters located overseas to submit absentee ballots through a blockchain-based app called Voatz. Counties in Utah, Oregon and Colorado have also tested the use of mobile devices for small numbers of international voters. However, this is the first time in which every registered voter is able to vote online, and the numbers are staggering: close to 1.2 million people are eligible to take part in this exercise.

King County’s online portal is operated by Democracy Live, a Seattle-based company that the local government has previously used to help administer online voting for overseas, military and disabled voters. To cast their ballots, people log into a portal and verify their identity by providing their name, date of birth and signature, which is checked against the county’s electoral rolls. Officials will also print paper copies of the ballots submitted electronically, providing a way to recount the results if necessary. People still have the option to vote by post.

Internet voting carries many of the same risks as other Internet activities: website links can be spoofed, devices can be compromised by malware, users can be impersonated and systems can be exposed to denial-of-service attacks. The expansion of smartphone voting has met with strong resistance, especially in the wake of the 2016 presidential election in the US, which has seen accusations of interference by Russian hackers to distort voting systems.

With the world watching, the officials in charge of this election are under a lot of pressure and facing sleepless nights to successfully complete the process. For the voting to take place without any hiccups, they recognize that all precautions must be followed and that there’s no room for cyberattacks. The King County initiative could provide valuable lessons for policy makers globally to conduct elections using tech tools that will make the voting process easier and also lead to higher voter turnout.