Wireless voting still has a long way to go

Americans first must trust electronic voting, which is still problematic

With the widespread adoption of smartphones and the use of mobile tactics in U.S. presidential campaigns, could there come a day when Americans might vote wirelessly?

That question was posed to a panel of mobile campaign experts at the Brookings Institution during a webcast Tuesday. The prevailing view was that wireless voting in the U.S. is a long way off.

Considering that much voting in the U.S. is still done with paper ballots, electronic voting over a wireless device such as a smartphone is "a long ways away," said Katie Harbath, associate manager of policy for Facebook. She noted that delegates to the Iowa Republican Caucus in February still voted with pen and paper.

Scott Goodstein, founder and CEO of Revolution Messaging, agreed, saying there have been problems with electronic voting at polling places in previous elections. The U.S. is not as advanced as some other countries in using electronic voting, he said.

Clark Gibson, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, said Americans are concerned about keeping their votes secret -- and that makes it unlikely that we'll accept mobile voting anytime soon.

He noted that mobile banking is catching on quickly, with customers using smartphones to make cash transfers and handle other types of transactions. But he said that's working because banks have insurance to protect customers from crooks who carry out fraudulent transactions.

"If there's voter fraud, there's no real insurance from fraudulent votes," Gibson said. He added that mobile voting could become a reality someday in the distant future, when there might be "quadruple firewalls and a way to back-check a vote."

Darrell West, vice president of Brookings, which conducts public policy research, said that while the American public, in surveys, has shown wide support for electronics innovation, the one exception is with electronic voting. Up to 70% of survey respondents say they don't favor electronic voting because they have concerns about fraud and cheating, which casts doubt on the likelihood that wireless voting will be accepted, he added.

West said the small nation of Estonia may have the most online voting of any country, and the practice has proved fairly successful there.

On another topic, the panel was asked how much presidential candidates are spending on their mobile campaign efforts. West said candidates typically spend 10% of their outreach and advertising budgets on digital efforts of all types, including mobile initiatives and websites. With outreach and advertising comprising about 45% to 55% of a presidential campaign, that means about 4% is going toward digital campaigning, he said.

Harbath, who said she previously had worked on a GOP app for the iPhone, urged campaign staffs to develop mobile strategies that focus on making a few basic technologies work well.

"Don't forget the fundamentals, and [avoid] going for the bright shiny thing," she said. "Make sure the [campaign] website looks good on mobile, and email looks good on mobile and figure out text" on mobile.

The panelists didn't fault President Obama or the Republican candidates for problems with their mobile campaign websites that were recently uncovered.

Mobile technology does play a role in U.S. politics, however. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center found that 26% of Americans used their cellphones to learn about or take part in the 2010 midterm elections.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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