May 28, 2020

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New York and America need more mobile voting now

Smartphone, smart vote.
Smartphone, smart vote.(Shutterstock)

It’s a constellation of bad events occurring at the same time that could disrupt upcoming elections through to November. It reads like a dystopian thriller novel where everything that can potentially go wrong, does.

A pandemic hits the U.S. during one of the most important elections in history, and reactively, much of the electorate remains at home in sweeping voter self-suppression. Those who aren’t afraid of the virus go out and cast ballots en masse, mostly for one candidate.

This is a dismal narrative, not necessarily for its plausible end result, but because even in this new century, American democracy has yet to figure out how to increase ballot access and make voting easier for every eligible voter.

While many states may resist adopting balloting methods other than in-person at a poll site, New York will adopt mail-in voting as the default. And although voting by mail is a long-overdue upgrade to the ballot box — a democratizing move that will increase ballot access — it is far from a foolproof solution.

It’s imperfect not because of risk of fraud or electoral malfeasance, but on account of the fact that there’s no absentee ballot for an absentee ballot. If a voter can’t go to a poll site or mail in a timely ballot, what’s the back-up plan?

We need to assume ballots will get lost or absentee applications won’t arrive on time, as one city councilman has pointed out. Communities with poor mail service may be disproportionately affected more than others, according to reporting by the Brennan Center. The hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who left the city may not have requested mailing forward and consequently will have ballot applications sent to their homes in the boroughs soaking up the summer heat as they remain untouched in mailboxes — or their mail forwarding address may not work.

Then consider that the margin for error widens every time the mail system is used––from requesting a ballot application, sending it out, receiving a ballot, and sending the ballot out four times — and through every administrative step, or four back-and-forths. The timeline becomes tighter as well depending on which state or country the ballot application or ballot is being sent to.

To make matters even worse, the New York City Board of Elections has stated that there is a national envelope shortage. New Yorkers could end up waiting at home for a ballot that never arrives.

Time is running out and NYC has a small window to have a contingency plan in place for all of these situations: Mobile emergency ballots for “absentee” mail-in ballots.

In January, Seattle opted to provide 1.2 million eligible voters with mobile voting and mail-in ballot options. Residents had more than two weeks to submit ballots, and over 94% chose electronic submission over printing and mailing out their ballots. Seattle, which joins other cities like Denver and states like West Virginia, has validated that voting by mobile device is no longer a proof of concept, but a desire of the electorate.

New York doesn’t need to open up mobile voting to everyone, nor should it right now. But it can provide an additional balloting method as an option to safeguard against the likely shortcomings of mail-in voting. Disability rights advocates have filed a federal complaint urging the courts to require a digital option for the visually and physically impaired in New York. The state can provide an alternate safe and secure way — much safer than e-mailing ballots — to vote digitally through strict protocols with verified voter identification and through blockchain technology. If Estonia, which implemented online voting over 14 years ago without any security incident since, can provide electronic ballots for its citizens, then surely New York State can offer mobile voting as an emergency ballot option to a subset of New Yorkers.

If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that black swan events do happen, and a series of unfortunate occurrences can lead to even more adverse outcomes. Allowing for multiple balloting methods and limited mobile voting reduces the risks of elections going awry that could result in distrust in our democratic system.