January 16, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
As Election 2018 proved, voter suppression is alive and well in America. Efforts to limit voter access have become so common that the newly minted Democratic Congress is making electoral reform a top priority in 2019.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats have introduced the For the People Act, which would expand federal oversight of state legislatures pursuing restrictive voting laws, among other provisions. In the words of Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.): “We heard loud and clear from the American people that they feel left out and locked out too often from their own democracy.”
Reform is necessary, whether it comes through federal legislation, court rulings, or pro-democracy ballot initiatives. On Election Day, 11 of a possible 13 pro-voter initiatives won in blue, red, and purple states, from Colorado to Michigan and Utah.
But there is an even more transformative solution to the voter suppression problem: technological innovation. Technology is reshaping all aspects of our lives, from how we shop to whom we marry.
It can also eradicate voter suppression, expand voter access and restore our democracy. Digital apps like TurboVote have already made it easier to vote, sending users text and email reminders about registration deadlines, polling locations and other information.
Technology provides Americans with the information they need to have their voices heard. When advanced algorithms determine if maps skew partisan, gerrymandering, long used by politicians to silence voters, is exposed as the national travesty it is. Armed with data, voters can now demand less politicized redistricting practices, opening the door to bipartisan commissions and other reforms.
Modernizing electoral infrastructure and digitizing electoral information have the potential to reinvigorate interest in our democracy by engaging voters in our millennial age group and even younger ones. These new generations of voters have grown up with technology, and technological advances can play a role in boosting a turnout rate that pales in comparison to that of their elders.
We’ve already seen promising signs at the state level: From April 2014 to October 2016, more than 350,000 of Georgia’s voter registrations were completed online. People aged 18 to 34 made up 70 percent them.
Not surprisingly, online registration has been linked to increased turnout. In Georgia, nearly three-quarters of those who registered online turned out to vote, compared with roughly half of those registering by mail and through a state agency. A similar study in California found that, during the 2012 election, 78 percent of the state’s online registrants aged 25 to 34 turned out to vote—compared with 56 percent of those who registered through other methods.
Yet online voter registration is not available to all Americans. As of today, a total of 37 states plus the District of Columbia offer online registration. The rest are on the wrong side of history.
Ultimately, the right side of history is a hybrid system of paper and online voting. We already use our smartphones to bank online and pay taxes, but we need a slip of paper to vote?
Using a hybrid system, Estonia is now entering its 14th year of online voting — called “i-voting” there — and their electorate’s trust in the voting process grows with each passing election cycle. To date, not a single online vote in Estonia has been under suspicion. Better yet, not a single major security incident has been recorded.
Most importantly, democratic participation there is on the rise. In 2005, about 500,000 Estonians turned out to vote in their local elections. Last year, that number surpassed 586,000, more than 186,000 of whom were “i-voters.”
If Estonia can get it right, so can American democracy. Roughly half of all surveyed millennials claim that the option to vote online would make them more likely to vote. While many states already offer online voting for select residents — many of them qualified veterans — there is no reason not to expand the system nationally to other voter segments.
As West Virginians proved on Election Day and Estonians have shown for years, online voting and cybersecurity are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to combine the ease of use associated with online voting and the auditing capabilities of paper.
Technology has, by and large, transformed American society for the better. It’s time for technology to revolutionize American elections — and unleash millions of American voters.
Campbell Streator serves as program director at Every Vote Counts (EVC), a student-led, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout and expanding voter access. Thomas Rosenkranz is the founder of Yale University’s EVC chapter and serves on EVC’s executive board.
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