How Electronic Voting Works: Pros And Cons Vs. Paper Voting

In a world where your shoes can be connected to the internet, why is something as important as voting still done on paper? While electronic voting offers some great advantages over the traditional alternative, there are some concerns about making the switch.

We’ll be taking a look at what electronic voting is, and whether it should be the new default when exercising our civil rights.

What Is Electronic Voting?

Many people envision electronic voting (also known as e-voting) as one of two things: using a touchscreen to select votes OR casting ballots via the internet. While both of these cases would be correctly classified as electronic voting, there are many other arrangements that can also fall into the same category.

Electronic voting involves any form of voting that uses modern technology to either cast or tally votes, which means that many polling locations in the United States have already made the switch by using scanner machines to count paper ballots.

vote-laptop
Image Credit: Rawpixel.com via Shutterstock

However, for many people this doesn’t seem like enough. Why do we still have to go to a polling location on Election Day when we can do almost everything else from home with the power of the internet? Systems like this have been implemented before in nations like Canada and France, but there are many things to consider about the security of an advanced e-voting system.

The Advantages of Electronic Voting

The primary advantage of electronic voting is the speed at which results can be tallied and reported. With traditional paper methods, ballots must be collected from various polling locations and consolidated at a central location before a team of individuals sifts through them manually. This process is very time-consuming, leading to a major delay in the announcement of election results.

In the United States, this delay typically has viewers up all night trying to determine who is winning as the votes roll in hours later. With electronic voting, results are available almost right away because votes are counted as they are cast. All that’s necessary once polls are closed is to collect the totals from each polling location and sum them together.

By using e-voting, the results of elections could be available in a matter of hours rather than days, meaning elections could have a more instantaneous impact.

Another major plus of electronic voting is the potential for increased voter engagement. An unfortunate fact of democracy is that many people fail to take advantage of their right to elect their officials, despite many efforts to change this.

In an age where most things are instantly accessible to us and instant gratification reigns king, the requirement to go to a polling location continues to drive down voter turnout. Some people don’t have time to take off work, don’t live close to a polling location, or just can’t be bothered.

Advocates for e-voting argue that by offering an option to vote from home or work using your computer or smartphone, more eligible voters would be willing to take a few minutes to log in and cast votes.

vote-here-sign
Image Credit: Yellow Monkey via Shutterstock

Electronic voting also allows for greater accessibility to people with disabilities. In the traditional system, someone with a disability that limits their ability to mark paper ballots is required to attend a polling location with personal assistance. This process compromises the person’s right to cast an anonymous ballot and may dissuade them from participating in the democratic process.

Due to the prominence of technology in our world, there are already tons of peripherals and software that allow people with disabilities to interact with computers and other electronic devices.

These adaptations could be implemented with voting machines to allow people with disabilities to cast truly anonymous ballots and ensure them equitable rights.

Finally, the last major advantage associated with e-voting is a long-term decrease in expenses. Conducting a large-scale election can be a costly prospect, primarily because of labor costs. A traditional election requires someone (typically the government) to foot the bill for workers at polling locations, workers to transport votes to the counting location, and workers to count the votes.

The expenses quickly pile up, which could put a major strain on an entity like a small, underfunded local government. Electronic ballot-counting machines can cut the cost of paying for human counters, while internet voting can also cut out polling location employees altogether.

And since the same machines and infrastructure can be used for multiple elections, a one-time payment can save money for years to come.

Though these reasons make it seem as though electronic voting is clearly the better alternative, there are always two sides to a story. Many well-informed individuals have been against electronic voting for quite a while now, and for good reasons.

The Disadvantages of Electronic Voting

By far, the biggest concern about electronic voting is hacking. As with any electronic device, there is always the risk that someone without authorization would be able to access and alter the results of an election.

This could be done either in-person, by physically tampering with the voting machines, or remotely, if the system transmits any kind of data over the internet. Also, allowing people to vote using their own devices could pose major risks as well.

Consider that reports show that approximately 30 percent of internet-connected devices in the United States are infected by some kind of malware. With that in mind, casting votes via these devices opens up the whole system to various vulnerabilities.

One well-informed but malicious person could change millions of electronic votes and get away without a trace, while changing that many paper ballots would be impossible not to notice.

Image Credit: scyther5 via Shutterstock.com
Image Credit: scyther5 via Shutterstock

Skeptics of electronic voting also cite the ease with which fraud can occur. When going to a polling location, voters are required to provide a form of photo ID to confirm that they are the registered voter they claim to be.

While fraud for in-person voting is possible, it requires a false photo ID, which is typically more work than it’s worth to fake. With online voting, voter identification would have to occur with some other type of credential. This could include Social Security numbers, dates of birth, driver’s license numbers, or some other unique identifier.

The problem with using these types of verification is that anyone who obtains these pieces of information could login and cast a vote for someone else. (And don’t even think about biometric credentials.) If someone obtained a large amount of these identifiers with a data breach, they would be able to cast thousands of fraudulent votes.

Another potential problem with current e-voting systems is that they are created and operated by private companies. With major elections having serious implications for businesses based on the winner, it’s hard to trust a private company to remain unbiased.

Corporations play major roles in elections already by donating millions of dollars to campaigns, but that amount of influence pales in comparison to what one company would have if it was in charge of conducting an entire election.

When the government hires a company to implement its electronic voting machines, it’s trusting said company to accurately collect and report its votes. But there’s no guarantee that this will occur, and many believe that no system should ever be implemented if it can’t guarantee fair and unbiased voting.

Finally, another hurdle for implementing widespread e-voting is the high upfront cost of installation. While electronic voting can be a cost-saving measure over the long term, the cost of setting it up may be a prohibitive factor. Costs include the voting machines, maintenance and installation, testing the infrastructure, and securing the premises.

The expense of all this would be too great for many governments to invest in, especially if the tech is unsure of being a long-term solution.

Is Electronic Voting Worth It?

While it may seem like the choice must be either traditional paper ballots or modern electronic voting, the truth is that there is a middle ground.

Many places already offer mixtures of the two, such as using scanner machines to read paper ballots or offering online voting to select groups like deployed soldiers. Some systems may work well in one place or for one type of election, and then completely flounder in another.

Because of this, it makes it almost impossible to say whether electronic voting is “better” than traditional paper voting. But as we move forward into the future, technology will continue to change and we may one day find ourselves all voting from home in our pajamas.

Do you think the benefits of electronic voting outweigh the potential issues? Would you be more likely to vote if you could do it online? Let us know with a comment below!

Image Credits: Lisa F. Young/Shutterstock