The 2020 presidential election in the United States is just around the corner. This year, the election has been particularly controversial in part because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions the virus has placed on in-person gatherings. In a world in which connected devices and IoT (Internet of Things) technologies have enabled everything from autonomous vehicles to robotic surgery, it seems like there should be other options for casting votes besides sending paper ballots in by mail or turning them in by hand. However, concerns (both legitimate and overblown) about election-outcome accuracy and voter privacy have held the election process back in many ways from the digital revolution that has permeated almost everything else. Will 2020 be a pivotal year in changing how the American people and “the powers that be” feel about advancing the voting process?
Voter turnout in the U.S. isn’t typically great. Pew Research says just 56% of Americans who were old enough to vote in 2016 actually cast a ballot in the last presidential election. Perhaps in a connected world, the way to engage more voters is to make the process more convenient. When the public is used to having the internet and all of its capabilities—whether it’s making purchases, remotely consulting with a physician, or conducting business—at their fingertips thanks to smartphones and other mobile devices, ubiquitous mobile and/or internet voting seems inevitable, at least once the industry can nail down security and privacy and gain trust and buy in.
Companies and solutions already working toward this goal include Smartmatic, an election technology provider that enables absentee voting for military personnel, diplomats, and other citizens far from home during elections. Votem is a mobile voting platform looking to disrupt the elections process in a good way by leveraging blockchain, which IBM defines as a “shared, immutable ledger for recording transactions, tracking assets, and building trust.” MarketsandMarkets estimates the global blockchain market will grow from $3 billion in 2020 to $39.7 billion in 2025. Votem’s Proof of Vote Protocol is a blockchain-enabled, verifiable voting protocol meant to ensure secure, accessible, and transparent voting. Another company dedicated to making mobile voting secure and accessible is SecureVote, which relies on its Copperfield algorithm to provide peer-to-peer secret ballot-style voting. However, many remain unconvinced that blockchain or internet voting is a good idea. Earlier this year, a group from MIT published a draft research paper detailing why blockchain tech does not solve fundamental security problems inherent in electronic voting systems, and, worse, theorizing that they create new potential for attacks.
In other countries, like Mongolia, Fiji, Zambia, Somalia, and Nigeria, biometrics technologies have been used to improve the election process and reduce the potential for voter fraud. Biometrics such as fingerprints, facial images, and iris scans can, for instance, improve voter registration and identification systems on voting day. M2SYS offers a biometric voter registration system called TrueVoter, which has been used in countries like Kenya and Ghana, among others. However, hurdles remain. Biometrics can’t prove eligibility, just identity. It’s also not foolproof. While biometrics technologies can potentially prevent some types of fraud, they can’t eradicate all fraudulent activity. In reality, a combination of technologies may end up being used in future elections to encourage and streamline registration, verify identity to reduce voter fraud, and boost citizen participation through ease of use.
2020 is pushing election issues in the U.S. to the forefront because, unfortunately, the current election process isn’t equipped to handle what the COVID pandemic has thrown at it. The technology to revolutionize elections exists and is proven in many other sectors and use cases, but the risks for applying technologies like biometrics and blockchain to elections at this time outweigh the benefits for many voters and security experts. In the future, that will change, and perhaps this year will be the year that forces the next step toward future, high-tech elections.
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