Election 2020

After This U.S. Election, the Case for Online Voting Is Stronger Than Ever

Going digital would ensure faster results, easing concerns about legitimacy and providing a productive role for big tech.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

A man holds a U.S. flag outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center as ballot counting in the presidential election continues inside on Nov. 6.
A man holds a U.S. flag outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center as ballot counting in the presidential election continues inside on Nov. 6. Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

The gridlock over the U.S. election results is frustrating for voters, embarrassing for Americans, and, perhaps most important, damaging to the spread of democracy around the world. As the world’s oldest democracy (the United States is the only country with a continuous constitutional democracy more than 200 years old) the country has a unique obligation to show the world that democracy works. Whether it has worked this week is debatable. Whatever the eventual result, the questions raised about the electoral process will long outlast current events.

The United States needs to revive its democracy through technology. Online voting can provide transparent, fast, and reliable results. It can also increase voter turnout: Less than half of eligible voters under 30 (an age group more comfortable looking at a screen than a polling booth) voted in the 2016 election. This time around, that turnout may be higher, but it’s still not especially strong for a Western democracy. A democracy that doesn’t capture the preferences of broad swaths of its constituents isn’t a functioning democracy.

To be sure, some commenters might fear that online voting would lead to worse accusations of (or actual) fraud, and fear of Russian hackers or Chinese cybercriminals fatally disrupting an election could be increased if the whole process went online. But the technology already exists to keep the process secure. We bank online and do not routinely go to bed expecting that we will wake up to find that bank has disappeared and our accounts have been emptied. The United States has nuclear submarines that are networked, and it has found ways to prevent them from being hacked and used against the country.

The same military-grade technology that makes those things safe can do the same for voting. Online voting is not even experimental: Estonia has implemented online voting for its entire electorate since 2005. Although the country has been targeted by Russian hackers, thorough testing and end-to-end verifiability have eased concerns about the integrity of the system. In the United States, West Virginia and Delaware have already provided online voting for primaries, with no plausible suggestions of fraud or hacks.

By embracing online voting, the United States can give voters confidence in the system; after all, voters would be able to see the counts in hours, not days (or weeks). Such a system would also allow both parties to connect with those who would not normally vote, and would put the United States in a position to again lead the world with an example of a political system that does what it’s supposed to do.

Online voting has one further benefit: It would allow Big Tech to find its true purpose in society. Increasingly, tech firms are quickly taking on editorial functions by suppressing or promoting stories. Their efforts—and their unique capacities—would be better spent providing the infrastructure to keep America’s democracy functioning. That infrastructure can be open to real-time audits by both parties as well as neutral observers. Perhaps the server logs could even be posted online, creating a truly open, 21st-century democratic system.

After this month’s election, it is clear that American democracy needs a reboot. At a time when many organizations are going through a digital transformation, it’s time for the United States itself to join in.

Ronjini Joshua is an author, speaker, and founder of The Silver Telegram, a tech-focused communications firm.