Social Policy
• Published
September 6, 2023

Against Mobile Voting

Written by
Evan Doerr

Mobile voting–its a tantalizing idea that’s gaining steam as well-intentioned concerns about accessibility to voting rise. To rosy-eyed reformers, mobile voting is a panacea for the  challenges of an injured liberal democracy: dwindling civic participation and faith in the system, voter suppression, and inaccessible voting. The new program has already been piloted in states like West Virginia, Colorado, Utah, and South Carolina. But in the quest for more righteous elections, proponents of mobile voting risk pushing for a process that will eviscerate the meaningful aspects of American democracy. Now, this isn’t to say the intention behind the idea is malicious–on the contrary, it's honorable. However, some of humanity's worst debacles have been caused by well-meaning political decisions. It’s time to answer the challenge Mobile Voting has on its website: “You do everything else on your phone. Why not vote?”

Boiled down to its essentials, mobile voting is a digitally-filed absentee ballot. Using the internet, a voter can access the voting platform after authenticating their identity, signing an affidavit, and snapping a photograph of an appropriate photo ID. Then, voters have the option to print out their ballot and return it physically or send it in digitally. Digital ballots will be encrypted and protected. Then, election officials will decrypt and print out physical copies of the digital ballots. Voters who submit their ballot digitally also have the ability to verify their ballots were recorded and sealed correctly with “End-to-End Verification.” This process is explained with more detail on the Mobile Voting website. Patrons of mobile voting argue that it's a solution to fully enfranchise military voters and their families, voters living abroad, voters with disabilities, tribal communities, and voters in emergencies; mobile voting is a universal solution that seeks to allow anyone with access to the internet to vote. 

However, there are significant problems and reasonable objections with both the premises and logistics to operating universal mobile voting. Mobile voting is undesirable for a salutary democracy because it promotes fickle decision-making and rewards bombastic candidates, endowing power to whoever can promise the most or infatuate with scandal. Not only does it make American voters more flippant, but it carries other cancers and plagues with it. Mobile voting brings significant cybersecurity risks and lacks the reliability of paper ballots. It also provides a conduit for populist candidates to delegitimize elections and spits on the idea of a secret ballot free of outside influence. Moreover, there are significant problems with the current arrangement to authenticate if a vote was counted correctly. Although American elections need reform, they don’t need ruin; mobile voting should be swept into the dustbin. 

The thought behind mobile voting is noble and novel. But in truth, the proposal profanes American republicanism. Mobile voting is not a lubricant for democracy but rather a caustic acid that, if applied, will permeate and gnaw the meaningful machinery that makes good politics purr. Superficially, mobile voting is appealing. Skipping the queues at the polling booth or abbreviating the tedium of filling out an absentee ballot are seductive–but they’re what keep voting sacred. Proponents of mobile voting aren’t completely wrong; there are light time sacrifices and foresight required to vote that some people aren’t willing or able to commit to. However, requiring a reasonable amount of extra effort to vote is a good heuristic for ensuring desirable political outcomes. If a voter is willing to sacrifice their time and plan in order to vote, it's a signal that a given voter has convictions about the proper direction his town, state, or country should head. By including a small hurdle for a voter to overcome, apathetic voters are automatically shifted out; those that don’t care enough or know enough about the governments that they live under are less likely to vote with minor obstacles, meaning more informed policy decisions and representative selection are likely to occur.

When all the light barriers to voting are gutted and voters can vote whenever and wherever they want so long as they have internet access, the sanctity of the voting process dissipates. Voters will be more flippant when it comes to political engagement, not properly venerating the process or vetting candidates. As voting becomes more dionysian, candidates will likely continue to upgrade spectacles and grand promises to voters to attract quick votes. If implemented, these ideas are more likely to prove unsustainable; if not implemented, faith in the democratic process will continue to disintegrate. I’ll illustrate some scenarios that may become common with a mobile voting process: a student voting on the subway immediately after seeing a political ad promising to end subway fares, a group of adults voting together at the bar for a candidate promising to abolish certain taxes while intoxicated, an elderly adult swayed to vote after seeing a disingenuous political ad expanding social security payments, workers voting together while at work while under the eye of a boss for business interests, etc. Imagine all the insidious public policy that could be created by politicians elected by people easily puppeteered to make an electoral decision in a few minutes by mainstream media, social media, or celebrities. Mobile voting enables fickle decision making–rather than having more quality candidates yielded by voters who care enough to sacrifice time to vote, the US will have more candidates who can promise infinite bread and media circuses. 

Another huge problem with the present formulation of mobile voting is the intense cybersecurity risks America takes on if mobile voting goes mainstream. Mobile voting lacks the physical security of the paper ballot. Physical ballots (unless painstakingly replicated) are secure and very difficult to tamper with on a large scale, meaning audits are relatively successful at determining ballot authenticity and preventing voter fraud en masse. In mobile voting schemes, the veritability of votes is nearly impossible to completely verify, blind relying on the strength of encryption to protect the most sacred part of American citizenship. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the horrors of democracy’s enemies, whether at home or abroad, taking potshots at both the electoral process and public trust in government by manipulating votes. Whether by network cyberattack or viruses, America cannot accept glaring vulnerabilities in its election infrastructure. In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report arguing that even provisional plans to strengthen the potential electronic voting process didn’t “sufficiently mitigate other potential risks to physical security, terrorism threats, or targeted violence to the election infrastructure, nor do they identify dependencies on external stakeholders.” Mobile voting is fraught with risks, none of which are worth wagering against American election security. 

One way that mobile voting advocates have attempted to quell the issue of ballot manipulation is through “End-to-End Verification” (E2E-V). This method would allow voters to verify that the system properly recorded who they voted for on another device, after putting in verifying information. 

This verification is still subject to the same cybersecurity hack risks; a report by the U.S. Vote Foundation cited by Mobile Voting continues to trash the idea in its conclusion: “While it [E2E-V] is necessary for any online voting system for public elections, it is by no means sufficient. Once it is embedded in a larger Internet voting context fundamental new security vulnerabilities appear for which there are no solutions today, and no prospect of solutions in the foreseeable future. These include vulnerability to authentication attacks, client side malware attacks, and DDoS attacks that can be perpetrated by anyone in the world. Unless and until those additional security problems are satisfactorily and simultaneously solved—and they may never be—we must not consider any Internet voting system for use in public elections.”

Even though the report is damning, the idea of E2E-V carries even more conceptual risks. By allowing voters to access and authenticate their ballots on other devices, the voting software exposes itself to further malware risks. However, giving Americans the ability to authenticate their ballots doesn’t just have practical problems with software. If Americans can verify their ballots at any time, how can we deal with Americans who want to change their votes by claiming mobile voting didn’t accurately record who they voted for? What plan do we have for voters who claim fraud to switch their votes? It's not implausible to imagine a system where a sizable minority of the population attempt to switch their votes or claim the system misrepresented their intentions–what will we do then? If we allow voters to switch their votes by singing fraud, the US voting system will be in disarray and politicians will adjust their behavior and values accordingly to benefit; in close elections, marginal votes matter all the more. If we grant voters the right to change their vote, what burden of proof is necessary? Will voters have to prove an election was meddled with to change their vote? What if fraud happened but couldn’t be proven in court? How negatively will public perception of government and elections change? There’s no comprehensive or reasonable answer to these objections that don’t result in complete loss of civic trust in government and elections or loss of order in the political system. 

Moreover, the idea of E2E-V and completely mobile voting smash another pillar of American democracy: the secret ballot. Without a secret ballot, the plausibility of 3rd party influences on elections grows. Voter intimidation will balloon with the new ability to vote and check your vote on demand. Pressure from employers, family members, or other organizations will climb. Moreover, this also opens the possibility of “bounty balloting,” where individuals pay others to vote a certain way. Combine this with the ability to flip-flop votes, and you have a social catastrophe and a new budding blackmarket industry. The value of a secret ballot, besides the obvious protection from outside influence as voting must be done alone without supervision, lies in its lack of access at will. By keeping ballots permanently out of the public eye, unless under audit, you prevent voter intimidation due to the implausibility of accessing someone’s true ballot and the dubious authenticity of someone claiming to have voted a certain way. With E2E-V, where an individual’s votes can be accessed anywhere, anytime, and on any device, obstacles to successful voter manipulation are removed. Mobile voting opens the door to voter manipulation and intimidation. It’s better we trust the government to keep votes secret after individual review, then let people be pressured into exposing their votes to the public eye. 

To summarize, elections using mobile voting have the following holes: promoting fickle voting and poor candidates, cybersecurity risks, and not-so-secret ballots. Damning? Sure. There’s also a final risk to this whole process–complete election delegitimization. Mobile voting provides the perfect channel for a populist candidate to upend American republicanism. The inherent intangibles of the mobile voting process means civic trust can absolutely be broken by the right candidate. Imagine the 2020 election, only with mobile voting. Can you imagine the manner Donald Trump would eviscerate election security, claiming digital ballots for Biden were the result of hackers and arguing victory (even if no such fraud ever occurred)? The easy rhetoric exploiting the rift between ordinary Americans and elites? The dangers to civic trust in democracy cannot be overstated. If Americans ever get the fundamental belief that their votes are meaningless and that their elections are being managed by forces out of their control, American republicanism will end and the efforts of political opportunists will begin. Existential threats to American democracy are facilitated by mobile voting campaigns. Those that care about American elections ought to kill mobile voting in its cradle, despite the noble intentions of its parents.

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