In the United States, there are over 500,000 elected officials. In the overwhelming majority of elections, less than half of eligible voters participate, resulting in one of the lowest levels of voter engagement of any Western democracy. In this episode, Andrews asks and tries to answer: What can be done to increase turnout for elections conducted every year in the U.S.? Can the security risks of implementing online voting be overcome? If online voting did become available in the United States, what might it look like? Which companies would be the winners?

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Adam Ernest
CEO of Follow My Vote

Antonio Mugica
CEO of Smartmatic

Dan Wallach
Professor at Rice University

James Simmons
VP of Elections Operations at Everyone Counts

Improving Voter Turnout for 500,000 Elections

On November 2nd, 2016, I went to my local polling station in Brooklyn and voted, even though I knew my vote wouldn’t really count. In New York, it’s long been a foregone conclusion that the state would vote for Hillary Clinton for President, and where I live in Brooklyn, my congressional district is so overwhelmingly Democratic that there wasn’t a one in a million chance that the Republican candidate would win. Still, I woke up early and walked the few blocks to the local school to vote. You wouldn’t believe the line. It was a 90 minute wait to vote. I stayed, but many people didn’t. And I didn’t feel particularly encouraged doing my civic responsibility in voting. When the results were counted later that night, Hillary won New York, won the popular vote, and lost the presidency.

What about my civic responsibility to participate in all the other elections that I was eligible to vote for? On a New York City ballot, depending on the year, you can find candidates for the following public offices:

  • President and Vice President of the United States
  • United States Senators
  • Members of the House of Representatives
  • Governor and Lieutenant Governor of New York State
  • State Attorney General
  • State Comptroller
  • State Senators
  • State Assembly
  • Mayor of New York City
  • Public Advocate
  • City Comptroller
  • Borough Presidents
  • City Council Members
  • District Attorneys
  • Surrogate Judges
  • State Supreme Court Judges
  • Civil Court Judges

I think I’m significantly more involved politically than the average person, and I have to admit that I could not name all of the people who fill these positions and represent me. And if voting for the President felt so useless and required so much time, I began to think about how much time I or anyone else would devote to all of these other positions, none of which carry the import, visibility, and glamor of the presidency. Most people must subconsciously perform some type of equation in their heads: importance of office times likelihood my vote counts times the amount of effort involved is equal to some unquantifiable feeling that one should or should not vote.

Local Elections: A Better Place To Start

In the 2016 presidential election, the likelihood of my vote counting in the state of New York was small, and the work — not just measured by the time standing in line, but by the effort to familiarize oneself with all the candidates on the ballot — was high, so you would expect it to depress turnout. In an off-presidential election year like 2010, 2014, or 2018, we know from experience that voter turnout is even lower than it is during a presidential year. In 2014, less than 40% of the electorate voted in the November congressional races.

How many opportunities does a voter have to be apathetic? I just listed 17 races in total. It turns out that the number of elected officials in the United States exceeds 500,000 people! Absorb that number for a minute.

In an article in the Daily Kos, David Nir writes: “There are over 3,000 counties and more than 19,000 cities and towns . . . and almost every one of those has some form of elected government, including county executives, county councils, mayors, and city councils. That still scarcely covers it, though, because that doesn’t include things like judges, school boards, water boards, mosquito control boards (!)—hell, even coroner is an elected position in some places. And in Duxbury, Vermont, they actually elect, yes, the dog catcher.”

Professor Jennifer Lawless of American University published a book in 2012 entitled Becoming a Candidate: Political Ambition and the Decision to Run for Office wherein she tallied the total number of elected officials in the United States. The actual number for that year was 519,682.

Isn’t it obvious that it’s impossible to have an involved and participating citizenry if we don’t make it exceedingly easy to exercise the vote, as well as exceedingly easy to become educated about the people running for these elected positions?

If I were thinking about starting a company focused on Internet voting, I’d be tempted to focus my efforts on the governments that had the largest budgets to pay for my services. In other words, I’d focus on the entities responsible for running federal or state elections in the United States. But if I did that, I’d run into all the objections we’ve discussed in the prior two episodes about the vulnerabilities of Internet voting, such as potential DDoS attacks and hacking threats, in addition to needing to convince these entities that Internet voting would make a significant enough impact on voter turnout to justify the risks.

Here’s another strategy I might employ. We just said that there were 500,000 elected officials in the United States. I could use a two-pronged approach: first, target specific kinds of elections where national security would not be at stake if they were hacked; and second, address the technology concerns related to hacking. The elections I would target? Dog catcher, for one. It’s not likely the Russians would target a school board election either.

Technologists Will Lead The Way Towards Lasting Change

The question remains: is the voting industry likely to be upended by legislative or administrative agencies changing the way we vote? Or can we expect innovation to be led by technologists? The data suggests that the best way to improve voter participation in the United States is to offer voting on a weekend and to permit same-day registration. Same-day voter registration has been linked to as much as a 10 percentage point increase in turnout.

With respect to voting on a weekend, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. But I also think technology can make a significant difference in improving voter turnout. James Simmons of online voting provider Everyone Counts believed that companies, not government, would lead us toward lasting change.

James Simmons: “Private industry always leads government. That’s pretty much a truism. And a lot of what we’re doing and where we’re focusing in the private space and really trying to get into some very visible, meaningful areas that a lot of people know about and care about and get them exposed to it so that they take that with them and say, ‘If I can vote for everything else, and I can make my opinion known online, why can I not do it for one of the decisions that really, really matters?’”

Antonio Mugica of online voting provider Smartmatic gave me his prediction on where he thought we’d see changes come first.

Antonio Mugica: “I think what’s going to happen is you’re going to see a lot of online, mobile, and Internet voting tools for non-government elections and you’re going to see a series of platforms that are going to allow people to participate and engage in decision-making in networked environments. And I think this is going to happen in parallel and completely separate from government elections systems. And I think that movement will become so important and will get so much usage that then it will spill over onto the political markets. I think if governments today wanted to implement online voting, even starting only with, let’s say, people who have mobility problems and can’t get out of their homes, or overseas voters, they could do it. The technology is there . . . I think you will see more of this happening over the next two to three years. And at the same time, over the next five years, I think you will see these non-government elections that are going to happen and civic engagement is going to get a lot more fashionable, is going to be a bigger trend among citizens around the world. And I think the convergence of these two things eventually will bring online voting into mainstream democracies. I don’t think it’s a short period of time. It might take 10 years. It might take seven. Mostly because of the cultural fears in the mainstream stakeholders today.”

Market Size For Entrepreneurs To Address

So exactly how big is the U.S. market opportunity that we are talking about? If I just looked at hardware, software, and services spent to offer online voting for elections, do I think there are yearly expenditures that exceed a billion dollars? Well, I know in some years that’s true. The federal government provided financing for new electronic voting machines with the Help America Vote Act (called “HAVA”), which passed in 2002 and allocated $3.9 billion to the states for such expenditures. But is this the kind of spending that is made every year in the absence of federal subsidies? It’s difficult to find statistics on that, but it doesn’t seem like there has been a significant influx of federal or state money being used for electronic voting machines since HAVA.

I know that if you define voting more broadly to include the work that companies like SurveyMonkey and Google Surveys do, and if you extend that still further to include corporate elections, then the amount of the market size increases significantly.