Researchers say remote voting is ready. Are we?

Just a few of many things that are considered personal, private and basically nobody’s business:

  • Our banking transactions
  • Our sessions with doctors and therapists.
  • Our choices when voting.

For the most part, the first two items are frequently and securely done online, particularly in the time of COVID and social distancing. Yet as news footage of people waiting in long lines for hours to cast ballots attest, voting is still in the analog age.

Two University researchers, Bob and Kirsten Rosacker, are thinking the time’s up.

Kirsten Rosacker

“We’re heading in that direction,” said Kirsten, a University accounting and business law professor at Minnesota State Mankato. “In every election there just seems to be long lines and lots of discussion about disenfranchised voters.”

In the research paper, titled “Voting is a right: A decade of societal, technological and experimental progress towards the goal of remote-access voting,” the pair detail remote-voting efforts in the U.S. and around the world, raising the question as to why it isn’t happening yet.

While investments still need to be made at the tech end, Kirsten said, the main obstacle is getting people comfortable with the idea. Based on history, though, she’s confident that will happen.

“I think when airlines were first asking us to use electronic tickets, that was odd,” she said. “It’s unusual the first time you go to a sporting event to use your phone and not a paper ticket. Now it’s normal… We can have an application on our phone that allows us to file our tax return, do our banking and board a plane. It seems like the next step maybe in another four years is an application that allows us to vote.”

Bob Rosacker

Ten years ago, the two approached the same topic in a research paper calling for more consideration of voting remotely. Since then, they’ve watched with great interest as technology and the convenience it offers has become ingrained in the lifestyles of students and their own adult children.

“Anything that can’t be done on a phone, they just don’t do,” said Bob, an adjunct faculty member at the University. “We have this up and coming electorate who simply don’t want to be time- and space-bound, and they don’t want to have to drive to the polling place. They want to be able to do it from a place of their convenience.”

In making the case for remote voting, the pair are not suggesting replacing either the in-person or mail balloting.

“What we’re saying is there should be a mechanism that allows those people who are predisposed to use this to use it,” Bob said. “If you’re afraid of computers, fine, you have the normal ways that we’re doing it now. Ask for an absentee ballot. Vote with an absentee ballot and do it that way.

All you’re doing is creating another channel,” Bob added.

The COVID pandemic only serves to strengthen the case that vital, remote transactions can be done securely. It was, in fact, seeing reports of Wisconsin voters in early April risking their health by waiting hours to vote in-person that prompted the couple to revisit their original paper calling for remote voting.

“Instead of waiting for hours and hours, it would be minutes and minutes,” Kirsten said.

There will always be concerns in terms of tampering with voter registration, but commensurate with existing risks, they said. Confirming one’s identity is a common aspect of today’s technology.

“You can use your thumbprint to identify yourself on your phone,” Bob said. “You have your dual authentication like we have at the University. There’s a number of ways to do this. But you can’t stop people who have bad thoughts in their mind from doing things they shouldn’t do.”