Exclusive: Seattle-Area Voters To Vote By Smartphone In 1st For U.S. Elections

Jan 22, 2020
Originally published on January 31, 2020 12:39 pm

A district encompassing Greater Seattle is set to become the first in which every voter can cast a ballot using a smartphone — a historic moment for American democracy.

The King Conservation District, a state-chartered natural resources assistance agency with territory that includes Seattle and more than 30 other cities, is scheduled to detail the plan at a news conference on Wednesday. About 1.2 million eligible voters could take part.

NPR is first to report the story.

The new technology will be used for a board of supervisors election, and ballots will be accepted from Wednesday through election day on Feb. 11.

"This is the most fundamentally transformative reform you can do in democracy," said Bradley Tusk, the founder and CEO of Tusk Philanthropies, a nonprofit aimed at expanding mobile voting that is funding the King County pilot.

But the move is sure to polarize the elections community as democracy-watchers across the country debate the age-old push-and-pull between voting access and voting security.

The U.S. trails most developed democracies when it comes to its election turnout rate, and local races typically lag far behind presidential November elections.

The board of supervisors election in the King Conservation District, for example, in past years has drawn less than 1% of the eligible population to the ballot box.

Tusk says low turnout contributes to dysfunction in government because candidates aren't forced to craft positions that represent the entire population.

"If you can use technology to exponentially increase turnout, then that will ultimately dictate how politicians behave on every issue," he said.

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But just four years ago, Russia used cyberattacks to disrupt the presidential election, including targeting and hacking into election infrastructure.

There's no evidence that the attacks changed any votes or data, but intelligence officials, election experts and even former special counsel Robert Mueller have warned that adversaries would target elections again.

Because of that, security experts have been nearly unanimous in their opposition to mobile-voting expansions in recent years. Some say that technology has not advanced enough yet, while others say the Internet will never be safe or transparent enough for something as important as democracy.

In its bipartisan report on Russian election interference, released last year, the Senate Intelligence Committee said, "States should resist pushes for online voting."

Many outside specialists continue to agree.

"There is a firm consensus in the cybersecurity community that mobile voting on a smartphone is a really stupid idea," said Duncan Buell, a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in election technology. "I don't know that I have run across cybersecurity experts whose mortgages are not paid by a mobile-voting company who think it's a good idea."

How it works

King County voters will be able to use their name and birthdate to log in to a Web portal through the Internet browser on their phones, says Bryan Finney, the CEO of Democracy Live, the Seattle-based voting company providing the technology.

Once voters have completed their ballots, they must verify their submissions and then submit a signature on the touch screen of their device.

Finney says election officials in Washington are adept at signature verification because the state votes entirely by mail. That will be the way people are caught if they log in to the system under false pretenses and try to vote as someone else.

The King County elections office plans to print out the ballots submitted electronically by voters whose signatures match and count the papers alongside the votes submitted through traditional routes.

While advocates say this creates an auditable paper trail, many security experts say that because the ballots cross the Internet before they are printed, any subsequent audits on them would be moot. If a cyberattack occurred, an audit could essentially require double-checking ballots that may already have been altered, says Buell.

"If you're doing phone voting or Internet voting, it's pretty much 'garbage in, garbage out.' You don't really know what you're getting in or what's coming out the other side," said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the former chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, in an interview with NPR last year.

Voters who use the smartphone portal also have the option to not submit their ballots electronically. They can log in, fill out the ballot and then print it to either drop off at designated drop-off locations or put in the mail.

Glimpse of the future?

Voting online has had a bumpy history over the past decade.

In a widely publicized incident, Washington, D.C., saw an online voting pilot program get hacked in 2010. The project was scrapped.

And the Democratic National Committee decided to nix a plan this year that would have allowed voters to caucus remotely in Nevada and Iowa. Precinct and party officials in Iowa, however, do intend to use a smartphone app to report results from their level.

Other states and counties also have shown a willingness to experiment to chase better voting turnout.

Before the King County announcement on Wednesday, however, that experimentation had been limited to populations that tended to have more difficulty getting to the polls.

West Virginia used a mobile app in the 2018 midterm elections to allow military voters and voters living overseas to cast ballots. One county in Utah allows the same for disabled voters.

All the recent developments have one thing in common: They've been funded by Tusk Philanthropies. Bradley Tusk told NPR that he hopes to fund between 35 and 50 mobile-voting pilots over the coming five years and then campaign for even wider use based on the data compiled from those programs.

Tusk took on the security worries directly.

"Everyone who doesn't want this to happen is never going to say, 'We oppose mobile voting because we don't want higher turnout,' Tusk said. "They're going to say, 'It's not safe.' And if we have proven 30, 40, 50 times over that it is safe, it's a lot harder for those objections and arguments to fly."

Buell, the University of South Carolina computer science specialist, admits that mobile voting probably will continue to expand this decade. That is due in part, he says, to a miscalculation by advocates and the public about how insecure the Internet and mobile phones are.

"Until we have a total collapse of some election, I think this sort of thing is going to continue," Buell said. "People want to believe that they can do everything on their phones."


Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the King Conservation District is a natural resources assistance agency chartered by the state and not a state environmental agency, as an earlier version of the report described.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So later this year, voters in King County, Wash. - which is the home of Seattle - are going to be able to vote in an election using a mobile phone. This is about 1.2 million voters we're talking about. And although there have been a few experiments like this here and there, this is going to be the first time in a U.S. election where all eligible voters are going to be able to vote on their smartphones. This is not only important for its own sake; this is taking place, of course, in the context of this intense national attention on the issue of election security.

NPR's Miles Parks covers voting and is with me now. Good morning, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So tell us about the decision to do this in King County, Wash., using a smartphone.

PARKS: So the decision is really based on increasing turnout. That's the bottom line here. And I should be clear - this is not going to be used in the presidential primary or the presidential election this year. This is a pilot program that is focused around a board of supervisors election for the King Conservation District.

Now, if you have not heard of this, this is an environmental - small environmental agency in Washington that a lot of voters in King County also have not heard of. There were less than 4,000 votes cast in a similar election last year in a 1.2 million person district. That's less than half of 1% of the eligible population voted in the similar election last year. So officials there looked around one, wanted to find a way to increase turnout and, you know, decided to go this smartphone option.

GREENE: Oh, interesting. So, really, a central question of our democracy. Like, if voting becomes much easier, much more convenient, will many, many more people turn out? But I guess my question is if you don't want to use your smartphone, could you still go to a normal polling place if you want to in King County?

PARKS: You can. You will still be able to vote through all the traditional means. This is just kind of added on top of that. How this is going to work for the voters who do want to use it, though, is they'll be able to basically use a Web portal through the Internet browser on their smartphone or tablet, and they'll log in using their full name and their date of birth. Once they're logged in, they'll get a ballot. They'll fill it out, then be taken to a signature page. They'll sign their name using the touch screen, send it off to the board of elections.

The King County Elections Office will then verify the signature. If the signature matches the signature they have on file, then they'll then print out the ballot, and it'll be counted on paper alongside the other paper ballots people have mailed in or turned in.

GREENE: I mean, Miles, you've covered this stuff. I'm sure you've spent hours talking to cybersecurity, election security experts and specialists. I just think about the Russian attack on the 2016 election. I mean, are they freaked out by this idea?

PARKS: Yeah, it's actually really hard to find cybersecurity experts, who are not in some way tied to this plan, who are super supportive. The Senate Intelligence Committee just last year, in their Russian interference report, said explicitly that states should resist the push for mobile voting. On a whole, there's sort of a spectrum. Some cybersecurity experts say at some point, mobile voting may be OK; the technology just isn't there yet. And then there's this whole other portion of experts who say, no, never; democracy should never be this tied to the Internet.

I talked to Duncan Buell, who's a computer scientist at the University of South Carolina. He's pretty pessimistic overall about the security, but he still says that he expects mobile voting options to expand in the coming years.

DUNCAN BUELL: Until we have a total collapse of some election, I think this sort of thing is going to continue because people want to believe that, you know, they can do everything on their phones.

PARKS: Buell said the companies developing this sort of mobile technology are, quote, "trying to make sure that all the votes from Tehran, Moscow and Beijing get counted properly," if that gives you an idea of how he feels about the security.

GREENE: Yeah, it sure does. Well, I mean, we should say again - this is not a first-first, what's happening in King County, Wash. I mean, there have been other tries at mobile voting. What else is happening around the country?

PARKS: Right. So previously, these pilots - which have all been funded by a single organization that's kind of aimed at expanding this sort of voting in the U.S. - they've focused on populations that have traditionally had trouble getting access to the polls. In the 2018 midterms, West Virginia allowed its military and overseas voters to vote using a mobile app, and a county in Utah is doing the same thing for disabled voters.

So the organization that's leading this is Tusk Philanthropies. They say they want to fund 35 to 50 more pilots over the coming five years and then, basically, use the data from those pilots to continue to push for more expansion. We'll see if that happens.

GREENE: NPR's Miles Park. Thanks so much, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.