Can tech keep the US elections on track during coronavirus?

Paper ballots have held firm in the face of numerous attempts to bring in electronic voting. Is COVID-19 the final straw?

Elections are expensive, time-consuming and labour-intensive affairs. Paper-based ballots are used in the vast majority of countries and for the vast majority of important elections. Each major election accounts for millions of sheets of paper, thousands of litres of ink, tens of thousands of workers and volunteers, untold millions of human hours spent turning up to cast a vote with a pencil and paper, or some other paper-based system, plus many more associated costs and materials. It all seems incredibly wasteful, so why do we persevere?

In fact, there are good reasons. Paper is convenient, simple, low-tech and usable by anyone. It's hard to misread - the "hanging chads" controversy of George W. Bush's election notwithstanding - and it's also surprisingly secure. True, paper is readily available, but to swing an election of tens of millions of votes would potentially require millions of forged items of paperwork being somehow inserted into what is usually a fairly secure logistical chain. This, then, is paper voting's true strength: it's hard to hack.

By contrast, a competent hacker could change tens of millions of votes with a few taps of the keyboard, or at least a well-crafted script. At least, that's the argument put forward by those opposed to electronic voting, and they do potentially have a point.

However, the same argument could be made for electronic banking, online shopping and any other form of transaction that is supposed to be secure. Making electronic voting secure isn't easy, and it's almost certainly harder than its proponents think, but that doesn't mean it's not possible.

In any event, opponents of electronic voting may sometimes take their zeal too far. Paper voting is far from ideal, since not everyone finds it easy to get to a polling station within the necessary time window. Postal votes, as often used in the UK, also run the risk of being used fraudulently. No voting system is perfect, and electronic voting or app voting is no exception: if implemented well, it could be an improvement on the status quo.

The current US presidential election was seen as a potential proving ground for new electronic voting technology even before COVID-19 became an issue. Now - even if the majority of restrictions will hopefully be over by the time the final vote takes place - there's an added urgency. If people can't easily get out to vote, allowing them to vote electronically or by app makes sense.

However, so far the results of electronic voting haven't been spectacular. The Iowa Democrat caucus in February this year proved to be disastrous when the data-collation layer of an app provided for voting was shown to be dismally incapable of doing the job, to the extent that the final numbers weren't known even two weeks later.

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