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Could mobile voting play a role in the upcoming election?

Protocol sat down with Sheila Nix, a leader in the charge to bring voting-by-phone to the mainstream, to discuss whether mobile voting's time has come.

Sheila Nix

"[Mobile voting] is one of those issue areas that I think the average person really likes and is interested in. And the people who put up roadblocks are maybe people who would benefit from a low turnout," Sheila Nix said.

Photo: Courtesy of Sheila Nix

November will be here before we know it. And it's likely the world will not have returned to normal, meaning lining up to vote at polling stations on Election Day may not be safe. In response, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden have introduced a bill that would let every American vote from home by mail. Sheila Nix says mail-in voting is important, but not enough.

Mobile voting should play a role as well, argues Nix, the former chief of staff to Jill Biden and the current president of Tusk Philanthropies, which has been funding mobile-voting initiatives the past few years.

"The reason that the mobile piece comes in so helpful in a vote-by-mail situation is that there are certain people that doesn't work for," Nix told Protocol. "If you're blind, vote by mail doesn't help you, because you can't fill out the ballot yourself."

The organization Nix runs was started by Bradley Tusk, Michael Bloomberg's former mayoral campaign manager, who later famously helped Uber fight regulatory hurdles in New York. Tusk and Nix have been financially supporting mobile voting pilots in small elections — including in West Virginia in 2018 using the controversial Voatz app (which the state no longer uses), municipal elections in Seattle and Denver and a few other locales.

Mobile voting, especially in a time of social distancing, sounds appealing. Why, when we can do everything else on our phones, shouldn't we also be able to perform our civic duty? But mobile voting raises serious security concerns.

Protocol recently spoke with Nix about how coronavirus may accelerate the push for mobile voting, and whether it can really be ready for prime time in such a large election.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Do you think mobile voting will ever reach federal elections? Would it come about from a groundswell of smaller elections that have already used mobile voting?

Yes, I think so. It's kind of a benefit of our system that you can have jurisdictions that want to try this as an option, to test it. I think what will happen is more election officials will like it, more voters will like it, and then there'll be more demand for it. We don't see it as something where you would say, "You have to vote this way," but as an option for people who would prefer to vote that way.

It's one of these issues where if you're like me and have been around politics for a long time, or you're someone who's really into elections and election administration, you have a lot of questions. But when I'm traveling (when I used to be able to travel!), an Uber driver would be like, "Hey, what are you doing in town?" and I'd be like, "I'm working on a project to make it easier to vote by using your phone." That person would be like, "Oh, that'd be so great because I'm doing this and I'm a student and I have kids."

It's one of those issue areas that I think the average person really likes and is interested in. And the people who put up roadblocks are maybe people who would benefit from a low turnout.

And there's this world of academics on the security side that have just always been against it and don't really want to change their mind.

I like to deal with people who are skeptical or have questions but are open-minded about the concept in the long run, because I think that's going to make everything better. Security is not a static thing.

We have to keep testing and keep challenging the vendors and keep making sure that we're listening to concerns, but maybe not listening as much to the people who come up with 8,000 hypotheticals but don't have an alternate solution.

Because if you are blind or you have another disability where you can't write, and you have a device that helps you do those other things in your life, you should be able to vote on those. It's trying to figure out how we test it with the right groups and gradually expand it — because then, you start small and you can figure out where you need to add or take something out, or what people like and what they don't like. We don't want to come up with something that's amazing but difficult to use, either; you have to work on accessibility and security all at the same time.

For a system like this, you need voters to prove their identity, and that's not what the law requires in certain states. What's the solution here?

That really is a question for the jurisdiction, and it's overseen by what that state's local law is. So for example, in West Virginia in 2018, that system had people take a photo of their ID and then do a match to a live selfie to make sure it was the person — they had strong ID requirements. In Seattle, because they're in a vote-by-mail state and they confirm authentication through a signature match, the vendor had to figure out a way to have the signature done on your phone, with your finger and then matched up to their record. So there's very different authentication methods, and that's really a choice of the jurisdiction.

But in a lot of these scenarios, you're still requiring people to get an ID and have a cell phone — both of those still cost money.

I think the concept of finding other ways to authenticate someone's identity other than a document like a driver's license or a passport could solve a lot of problems in the election space, whether you did mobile voting or a different kind of voting.

Do you see a point in the future where mobile voting ever entirely replaces in-person or by-mail voting?

I think you're always going to have those other systems for different circumstances. With something like this, a big cultural change, that's something I don't think you can force. I think that would be a mistake.

I don't see it anytime soon being the only way to vote. Some people really like going on the day of the election and they live in a community where people get together, and that's great. And so they really don't want to switch away from that. But then you have other places where you're in a larger environment and that's just not practical and you're trying to get home from work to vote and the traffic's bad and you'd be just as happy to vote on your phone. I do think it's going to be something where if you have it, it's part of an option, not the only option.

Given everything that's going on in the world and so many of us stuck at home, are the vendors you're working with actually ready to do something like this at scale in November if need be?

I think if you ask them, they would say yes, but the thing that is kind of interesting is we've had some conversations with some of the bigger companies that have been in the election space for a longer time that don't currently offer mobile. And one of them in particular [Dominion] has an online and mobile voting offering that they use in Canada, so they can do it. They've done it in other countries, they just don't do it in the United States.

The capacity's there. But we'd have to get some of the vendors that have the capacity but aren't currently offering it to offer it in combination with the people who are offering it. I think we could do it, but you'd want to start pretty soon.

November is coming pretty soon.

I know, and it's hard to know what that's going to bring. It does seem like it makes sense (to me, at least) that you would have some kind of backup emergency plans in place.

Because it could seem like everything's fine and then something could happen suddenly again. I'm in Illinois. We were one of the last states to hold an in-person primary, but in a way, while we knew it was coming, it did seem to come on suddenly where you were quickly deciding people couldn't be in person and you don't have much time to work with. So I do think that the election community is starting to think about it.

There's also the security hurdles that mobile voting in November would bring. Are people thinking hard enough about this to create a system that really could be as close to impenetrable as needed?

Most election officials have a pretty good sense of all the different trade-offs that come with different forms of voting. In a way, I think it's why they are more open in some ways to trying things, because they understand that the current systems aren't all perfect, and even a paper system isn't all perfect, because then you have physical location issues.

I think they have the best sense of the risk and the reward. And they might be in a position [to add security], for example, where a state only has a signature requirement, they might think, "OK, if this [mobile voting] is going to be done at a more wide scale, maybe we should add something else," whether that's just doing some additional security questions or requiring more of an ID.

One of the vendors that we've worked with a lot [DemocracyLive] has been doing online ballot delivery and marking for 10 years — and the only part that's new is the return. So I think you might also see, just because of cost and timeliness, a push to try to — at the very least — get the ballot out online as opposed to sending everyone a ballot in the mail. I think there's going to be a lot of conversations on how to do this, both securely and safely and in a cost-effective manner.


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Do you think voting for the president should be as easy as voting someone off of "American Idol"?

I understand your question, but I think what you find is that most people want to vote, and they want to vote in a responsible way. And sometimes their circumstances don't allow them to because of their work schedule or their child care schedule or anything else. I don't think because something is convenient means you don't put thought into it.

There's sort of two different questions, and one doesn't necessarily answer the other: Do I want people to vote without giving it any thought? No. Do I think that making it convenient to vote means you won't think about it? No, I don't think that, either. And I think that some of the data that we've seen early on is that people do want to vote.

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