Since the boom in use of online technology and personal computing in the mid-1990’s, every few years, coinciding with national elections, the nation enters into a debate on the feasibility of online voting. Supporters claim that using online technology will increase the accessibility and convenience of voting, while detractors cite online security flaws as a major obstacle to implementation.
Beyond the public debate, state organizations and offices throughout the U.S. have been testing online voting for years in places like Alaska, Arizona, Michigan and others, and the jury is still out on whether it’s effective or not. But with voter turnout remaining an issue during elections, and youth voter turnout in particular staying stubbornly low, the debate about online voting appears more and more pressing.
Digital technology is a staple of everyday life, especially among Millennials, and in 2016 getting voters to show up at the digital polls may be far more feasible than trying to increase turnout at physical polling sites across the country.
That’s not a new idea. Since the 1990’s, advocates have called the traditional Election Day model of showing up to vote at elementary schools and in church basements outdated.Back then, the basic idea for Internet advocates was that the convenience of online voting, as well as the prevalence of Internet use among youth, would bring disaffected voters to the polls. A decade and a half later, advocates make arguments that sound much the same, and the logic makes even more sense.
Around 1997, just 19 percent of households used Internet, including dial-up, in their homes. By 2013, that figure had increased to 74.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Additionally, citizens ages 15 to 34 had the highest rates of handheld computer use, such as smartphones or tablets, of any age demographic, hitting 83.3 percent.
Aditya Trivedi, a physics major at Princeton University who voted in the recent mid-term elections, believes that pervasive technology in 2014 makes online voting a good idea for increasing accessibility.
“Everyone has a smartphone now, Wi-Fi is accessible places, people have the ability to access the Internet for five minutes, more than they might have the ability to take off work for an hour to find their local polling place, stand in a line and vote,” Trivedi said. He also noted that Election Day is often on a weekday, when busy schedules keep people from the polls.
The Effectiveness of Online Voting
Despite high hopes for tech solutions making voting more accessible, the evidence on online voting and voter turnout is more tempered. Looking at the research, it appears there’s no true guarantee that online voting will directly lift voter turnout among any populations, even wired Millennials.
The tiny nation of Estonia, for example, with a population of about 1.3 million, has been using online voting in its elections since 2005. This year, 31 percent of Estonian voters elected to use the e-voting option in European Parliament elections. But when looking at the turnout figures, an increase in overall turnout doesn’t necessarily pan out. Since 2005, voter turnout in Estonia has swung up and down, and even among young voters it has hovered at around 10 percent for all elections. Moreover, the gains in turnout that did appear cannot be definitively correlated with online voting.
A 2004 report by two scholars from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences conducting research on online voting echoes the Estonian figures in a different fashion. The researchers talked with 13 focus groups consisting of voters, as well as pollsters from Italy, Finland, and England.
The report concludes that convenience as a benefit of internet voting was a major topic brought up by the members of the focus groups, the majority of which contained Internet-savvy participants. But overall the report found that there was no consensus, even among these tech-savvy voters, that online voting would increase turnout.
“People are disillusioned and that is why they don’t vote,” said one member of a focus group, attempting to explain the lack of confidence.
That observation, even from across the Atlantic, hits on a central issue when it comes to current political sentiments among young American voters. Disillusionment may keep Millennials from the polls.
Trivedi agrees that a strain of political disillusionment among members of his generation could be suppressing voter turnout.
“[Millennials] see their voice not being heard, and I guess a prevailing view among people of my age is that, if you vote, you’re just one vote, what’s the point? That’s not going to change anything,” he said.
In the face of disillusionment and a prevailing sense that voting isn’t important, the convenience of online voting doesn’t appear to be enough to lead to higher voter turnout among young voters, a population which, historically, has the lowest levels of turnout.
Looking to the Future
But online voting does have benefits. It’s convenient, accessible, and can be implemented in a variety of fashions. It’s also a new evolution for voting technology—the kind of evolution that Lauren Dunn, a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, believes should continue to be developed.
“I think policy innovations that help to make voting more accessible and more widely practiced among constituents are critically important,” Dunn said. “Certainly we’ve seen fairly large impacts of mail-in voting, which, if the same thing could happen through internet voting, that would be amazing.”
Dunn believes that setting high aspirations are necessary for making beneficial progress, and online voting could lead in the future to a more robust voting system all-around. At the same time, she was pragmatic, noting that if the U.S. is going to make strides in voter turnout, the issue comes down to far more than adopting or not adopting online voting technology.
“I think it’s important for policies that promote technology innovation to be visionary,” Dunn said.“Of course we want to believe that technology can help impact all of the outcomes that we’re looking for. At the same time I think, being realistic in the short run, it’s possible that internet voting may not impact voter turnout. Because voters still need to be inspired. They need to be inspired by the candidates, by the policies. They need to be inspired to be a part of their community. And that’s really a different type of work that needs to be done.”