Shaw: Can Cell Phone Voting Be A Secure Election Reform?

If casting a ballot could be as easy as downloading and using a secure app, it could be a key to vastly increasing anemic voter participation.

BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw writes a bi-weekly column for Crain's Chicago Business.

The tsunami of TV ads, news stories, press releases and social media that floods an election season is washing over us now, and Round One—the primaries—is just over a month away, so this is a good time to dry off and revisit some basic obligations in a healthy democratic society.

Ours, as Better Government Association watchdogs, is to post and discuss the questionnaires we asked candidates to fill out on key issues; separate fact from fiction with our PolitiFact Illinois analyses of their claims and allegations; roll out our new “Ready Set Gov” podcasts of conversations with experts on topics like law enforcement, taxes, pensions and school funding; and participate in candidate debates and forums.

We’re on it.

Your obligation, as citizens, is to be registered voters who seek out reliable sources of campaign information, assess candidates and cast your ballots.

But sadly, too many of you have failed to perform those basic tasks, and that rends the fabric of our democracy. More than 2 million Illinois residents, or a quarter of the voting-age population, aren’t registered, turnout in midterm primaries is abysmal—a record low 19 percent in 2014—and half the races are uncontested.

Those anemic figures reflect an ugly, polarized political system rife with unregulated campaign cash, and an election system rigged to protect incumbents by discouraging competition and, until recently, making it unnecessarily difficult to register and vote.

Thankfully, registering and voting are getting easier because state lawmakers recently started fulfilling their obligation to repair those pieces of the election machinery. But it still needs much more reform, and one potential game-changer is being promoted by two former Blagojevich administration deputies who left state government before his corruption scandal exploded.

Bradley Tusk, who now runs a business and consulting firm based in New York City, and Sheila Nix, who works in his Chicago office, are spearheading a “Mobile Voting” campaign that would enable us to cast ballots on our cell phones.

Tusk’s impetus was last year’s mayoral primary in New York, where only 14 percent of the registered Democrats voted.

“Politicians respond to the people who vote,” says Tusk, “and when 14 percent vote, pols represent those 14 percent at the expense of everyone else. That’s not real democracy. If we acknowledge the digital world we live in today, a lot more people will vote and the politicians will start representing all of them.”

Nix is monitoring the development of secure mobile voting software, and pitching pilot initiatives for military voters stationed abroad.

“Our service men and women deserve to vote in a timely manner and this would allow them to do that easily and securely,” she explains.

Mobile voting will require enabling legislation, and that’s likely to prompt fierce resistance from elected officials who have legitimate concerns about hackers corrupting the process, or fear that an expanded electorate could threaten their job security.

Building support for sea changes like this one take time, but 21 states already allow some form of online voting, and most people have cell phones, so if casting a ballot can really be as easy as downloading and using a secure app, it could be a key to vastly increasing voter participation.

The BGA isn’t endorsing the concept, but mobile voting is worth the serious discussion Tusk and Nix are initiating, so let’s start with pilot programs, see how they work and go from there.

In the meantime, let’s make this election season moderately successful by fulfilling our basic obligations with the tools we have available today.

About the Author

Andy Shaw

Andy Shaw is an award-winning Chicago journalist who spent 37 years covering local, state and national politics, business, education, and day-to-day news at the City News Bureau of Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times, NBC 5 and ABC 7, before joining BGA.