Seattle-Area Voters To Become 1st With Full Option To Vote Via Smartphone King County, Wash., plans to allow all eligible voters to vote using their smartphones in a February election. It's the largest endeavor so far as online voting slowly expands across the U.S.
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Exclusive: Seattle-Area Voters To Vote By Smartphone In 1st For U.S. Elections

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Exclusive: Seattle-Area Voters To Vote By Smartphone In 1st For U.S. Elections

Exclusive: Seattle-Area Voters To Vote By Smartphone In 1st For U.S. Elections

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So later this year, voters in King County, Wash. - which is the home of Seattle - are going to be able to vote in an election using a mobile phone. This is about 1.2 million voters we're talking about. And although there have been a few experiments like this here and there, this is going to be the first time in a U.S. election where all eligible voters are going to be able to vote on their smartphones. This is not only important for its own sake; this is taking place, of course, in the context of this intense national attention on the issue of election security.

NPR's Miles Parks covers voting and is with me now. Good morning, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So tell us about the decision to do this in King County, Wash., using a smartphone.

PARKS: So the decision is really based on increasing turnout. That's the bottom line here. And I should be clear - this is not going to be used in the presidential primary or the presidential election this year. This is a pilot program that is focused around a board of supervisors election for the King Conservation District.

Now, if you have not heard of this, this is an environmental - small environmental agency in Washington that a lot of voters in King County also have not heard of. There were less than 4,000 votes cast in a similar election last year in a 1.2 million person district. That's less than half of 1% of the eligible population voted in the similar election last year. So officials there looked around one, wanted to find a way to increase turnout and, you know, decided to go this smartphone option.

GREENE: Oh, interesting. So, really, a central question of our democracy. Like, if voting becomes much easier, much more convenient, will many, many more people turn out? But I guess my question is if you don't want to use your smartphone, could you still go to a normal polling place if you want to in King County?

PARKS: You can. You will still be able to vote through all the traditional means. This is just kind of added on top of that. How this is going to work for the voters who do want to use it, though, is they'll be able to basically use a Web portal through the Internet browser on their smartphone or tablet, and they'll log in using their full name and their date of birth. Once they're logged in, they'll get a ballot. They'll fill it out, then be taken to a signature page. They'll sign their name using the touch screen, send it off to the board of elections.

The King County Elections Office will then verify the signature. If the signature matches the signature they have on file, then they'll then print out the ballot, and it'll be counted on paper alongside the other paper ballots people have mailed in or turned in.

GREENE: I mean, Miles, you've covered this stuff. I'm sure you've spent hours talking to cybersecurity, election security experts and specialists. I just think about the Russian attack on the 2016 election. I mean, are they freaked out by this idea?

PARKS: Yeah, it's actually really hard to find cybersecurity experts, who are not in some way tied to this plan, who are super supportive. The Senate Intelligence Committee just last year, in their Russian interference report, said explicitly that states should resist the push for mobile voting. On a whole, there's sort of a spectrum. Some cybersecurity experts say at some point, mobile voting may be OK; the technology just isn't there yet. And then there's this whole other portion of experts who say, no, never; democracy should never be this tied to the Internet.

I talked to Duncan Buell, who's a computer scientist at the University of South Carolina. He's pretty pessimistic overall about the security, but he still says that he expects mobile voting options to expand in the coming years.

DUNCAN BUELL: Until we have a total collapse of some election, I think this sort of thing is going to continue because people want to believe that, you know, they can do everything on their phones.

PARKS: Buell said the companies developing this sort of mobile technology are, quote, "trying to make sure that all the votes from Tehran, Moscow and Beijing get counted properly," if that gives you an idea of how he feels about the security.

GREENE: Yeah, it sure does. Well, I mean, we should say again - this is not a first-first, what's happening in King County, Wash. I mean, there have been other tries at mobile voting. What else is happening around the country?

PARKS: Right. So previously, these pilots - which have all been funded by a single organization that's kind of aimed at expanding this sort of voting in the U.S. - they've focused on populations that have traditionally had trouble getting access to the polls. In the 2018 midterms, West Virginia allowed its military and overseas voters to vote using a mobile app, and a county in Utah is doing the same thing for disabled voters.

So the organization that's leading this is Tusk Philanthropies. They say they want to fund 35 to 50 more pilots over the coming five years and then, basically, use the data from those pilots to continue to push for more expansion. We'll see if that happens.

GREENE: NPR's Miles Park. Thanks so much, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you.

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