Voting, in some form or another, is on the minds and screens of Americans everywhere during this election year. As everyone knows it’s American Idol season and millions of Americans are voting by phone and text messaging for their favorites. However, in spite of the great interest in and high turnout for the presidential primaries on the Democratic side, the voting system — the mechanics that should allow for an easy and secure one-person-one-vote process, a system that the government has invested $4 billion since the debacle in 2000 — continues to be broken. Early registration deadlines and expensive machinery that continues to freeze, lose votes, and confound voters doesn’t work well. And in the case of Michigan and Florida, a political party is on the road to intentionally disenfranchising it’s own voters, a situation complicated by the politics of the death match for delegates between Senators Obama and Clinton, but also, as reported here, the Herculean logistics and costs associated with revoting. At the same time, quietly and efficiently, a quiet revolution in voting is happening in unexpected places.
One of the most exciting efforts is the unfolding Make It Your Own Awards sponsored by The Case Foundation. In 2006, The Case Foundation commissioned a paper by Cynthia Gibson entitled Citizens at the Center. The premise of the paper, which like all good ideas is very simple in retrospect, is that solutions for community problems need to come from local citizens who are supported by local advocacy or service organizations. Based on this idea, The Case Foundation created a grant initiative that would be completely transparent and democratic, two words rarely associated with philanthropy in the past. Here’s how Cynthia Gibson describes the Make it Your Own Initiative, “What we were trying to do through Make It Your Own Awards is to make operational two notions. The first, to show what citizen-centered efforts, which are very difficult to define but are taking place all across the country, really look like. The second, to show how philanthropy, which has traditionally operated as a black box, can actually involve “real people”, the ones who derive significant tax benefit, in their efforts.”
Community-based groups submitted online applications aiming to be one of the four $25,000 winners. More than four times the number of applications than the foundation expected were received, 4,641 to be exact. Using an American Idol-like winnowing process, the foundation enlisted 100 experts to narrow the number of applicants to 20 finalists. These finalists each received $10,000. And now the fun part, the public voting (you can vote here: http://miyo.casefoundation.org/vote/) begins and lasts until April 22nd.
Created by HZ Design, this election site is pleasing visually and very easy to use. With a nod to the wisdom of the crowds, the public will “elect” four winners. Each voter will use a unique email address. To safeguard against skewed results, and a flat out popularity contest, the site rotates the position of the finalists on the screen. The votes will be tallied independently by an outside firm, Election America. As Rich D’Amato of the Case Foundation said, “It’s fun and not too difficult, but most of all it’s involving people in meaningful ways in selecting the winners.”
The Make It Your Own Awards are more than a singular event, and more than a charitable one too. They are a harbinger of voting in this country. It’s easy to imagine voting portals like this one that have links to additional information on the people running for election or the ballot initiatives. We already have a wonderful example of online voting during this presidential primary season.
Democrats Abroad, a division of the Democratic National Committee, organized online voting for registered members of the Democratic Party as part of the Super Tuesday primaries. Voters also had the option of voting by fax and mail and in person in some places. My friend Jim, a Democrat living abroad, emailed me, “I had to register with “Democrats Abroad” before they would let me vote. It was all done by email, and I really wasn’t too worried about security.”
On February 21st, Democrats Abroad released the results of the first global primary for a presidential election. A little more than 23,000 votes were cast overseas and about half of those votes were made online. For instance, of the 662 votes in Japan, 435 were cast online, in Australia 414 votes were cast, 273 were online. This pattern was repeated in every region around the globe. After he voted, Jim emailed me again, “I logged in to the site with a id number and password that had been emailed me. I was required to submit a us address and agree to be a good democrat.” He continued, “In the end I could print a copy for my records, which I didn’t, but I’m not so worried that my vote won’t be counted this particular time.”
If the DNC and state party officials were to really consider a revote in Florida and Michigan , voting online is a safe and tested method that can inexpensively scale elections and allow voters to cast ballots wherever they are and whenever they like during the voting period. It’s not new or risky or futuristic, if you look carefully it is happening right now, safely and successfully. Given these examples and the proclivity of people, particularly young people, to use their everyday connecting tools to cast ballots, whether it is for their favorite causes, presidential candidates or the male actor with the cutest eyes, the tools are in place to scale online voting inexpensively and securely.
The complaints and concerns about online voting are as of-repeated as they are untrue. What about fraud, say the naysayers. This red herring pops up over and again and is repeatedly proven not to exist at any meaningful level (for an excellent study on the myth of voter fraud, click here to read, “Securing the Vote: An Analysis of Election Fraud” by David Callahan and Lorraine Minnette) why would online voting promote fraud any more than the nonexistent fraud that currently exists? In the case of Democrats Abroad, once a voter was identified as registered, they were sent a unique identifying number and passcode. The Case Foundation is appealing to the better nature of voters by using email addresses as identifiers – and if voters choose to use more than one email address we know from other voting efforts that it will be balanced out by the rest of the crowd who understand the spirit of the effort. But what about hackers? say the nabobs. Almost 18,000 votes disappeared from a Florida Congressional election in 2006 – almost 5 percent of the vote total in that race (why is it always Florida?) Election machines were left unsecured and unattended overnight in a very close election in Maryland’s 4th District in 2006. All of these problems stem from local tampering, unsecured and unreliable machinery (could there be a better analogy for this Bush Administration than $4 billion spent on new election machinery since 2000 and the results are that voters are less confident of voting outcomes!).
Oh, wait, don’t forget the fact that not everyone has online access, say the curmudgeons. Well, actually most Americans do have access (see Pew study here) and those who don’t in their homes do at work or at public access points like their public library. An older person said to me the other day, “I do my banking online and that’s safe, why shouldn’t I vote online?” I am not suggesting that voting only happen online (and those without online access at home can go to a library or vote at work also), we should keep mail-in voting as an alternative. Together the system will be much less expensive than the current broken system.
The solution is happening right now at the Case Foundation’s website, overseas with Democratic voters and the myriad other online voting efforts that are seamless, and intuitive for so many people. Online voting offers a clear distinction and alternative to the antiquated rules and troublesome and troubling mechanics of on land voting, a system determined to keep as many people out as in. How much more wasted money on machines that don’t work do we have endure until the logical answer, that one sitting right there in front of us, is adopted? Whether naysayers, curmudgeons or skeptics like it or not, online voting will be the 21st century version of the increasing popular absentee ballots and mail-in voting.