Here's Why Mobile Voting in the U.S. is Worth the Risk

Happy with the results of last year's Presidential election? How about Congress? Think they're getting the job done? How about your Mayor, your Governor, your state legislature, your city council?

Odds are, you're dissatisfied with at least one of them (actually, odds are you're dissatisfied with all of them) and odds are you didn't vote in all of the elections that produced them. Very few people consistently vote in primaries and general elections because voting is often difficult and inconvenient.

As a result, those who do (typically the most ideological on both sides of the aisle) tend to control the primary process and because of gerrymandering, that means whoever they select goes on to win in the general election most of the time.

The clearest solution is to get more people to vote. And the most obvious answer is to take advantage of the technology already sitting in your pocket: your phone.

But for those who like things the way they are (every current politician, interest group, union, major donors, many think tanks and anyone else who knows how to game the system and has no interest in making it easier for people to challenge them), they'll raise a host of objections to mobile voting, starting with security.

If you wanted to discourage people from voting in far greater numbers, you'd start with one obvious example: Russian hackers. We are now fairly confident that Russian hackers stole embarrassing information from the Democratic National Committee last summer and publicly leaked it in an attempt to influence the 2016 election. And on Election Night, hundreds of other attacks were made at the state and local level on election reporting systems- fortunately all unsuccessfully.

Add in the notorious hacks and digital attacks on corporations over the last few years--Yahoo, Sony, HBO, Wendy's, LinkedIn and others -- and even optimists struggle to explain how we can reduce the risk of further hacks to our election system.

But if our mainframes and election systems are already at risk, do we have anything additional to lose by moving to mobile voting? Are our phones really any less secure than corporate websites or data storage? Sadly, they actually might be, and in part this is the tech industry's fault.

Over the last two years, we have learned that spyware like the U.S.-owned NSO Group's Pegasus can invade a phone and steal all of its contents, often without the owner being aware. The New York Times recently reported that elements of the Mexican government bought this spyware and used it against their own journalists-- and even foreign aid workers-- to keep tabs on investigations they were conducting. If supposedly friendly governments are already buying cyber-weapons like these and using them internally, it doesn't require much imagination to envision our enemies buying similar technology to use against us to create chaos in our elections.

So are we crazy to keep pushing for mobile voting? Should we start making a push to move back to paper ballots (remember hanging chads?) and as far away from smartphones as possible? Even in the face of all this technological risk, we think mobile voting remains the future of our democracy. And there are two ways the tech industry can help get us there.

At Tusk-Montgomery Philanthropies, we're spearheading a new initiative to create and pass mobile voting across the country to increase voter participation and strengthen our democracy. Last week, we met with several of the companies who are leading the way to building the technology to enable mobile voting, and were very impressed with the answers they gave on protecting the integrity of their systems.

Voatz and Clear Ballot, although they have different missions, are both working to make the voting process far easier, faster, more efficient and secure. These companies show how Silicon Valley can promote mobile voting. Tech just needs to do what tech does best-- provide a technological solution that works better.

However, even a better solution will not solve all the trust concerns surrounding mobile voting. To restore our trust in the integrity of voting systems, tech may have to do what tech does worst--find ways to regulate itself.

If tech wants to be part of the solution, companies that produce and sell technologies that can be misused to hurt our democracy should sign a pledge and agree not to sell their technology to any third party without full and complete vetting, and should monitor and retain a kill switch on the technology to make sure that their technology is not misused. Venture capitalists who fund these companies should sign the same pledge and hold their portfolio companies accountable to this standard.

Mobile voting presents an early and important test for a scenario that tech will face again and again. As much as our leaders in tech constantly say they're making the world a better place (and sometimes, they really are), solving our democracy may be the biggest and most important challenge of all. We know that a lot more people will vote if you make it easier to do so. And we know that the risk of hacking threatens that ability. Tech can solve it. But doing so means more than great engineering. It means proving the tech industry - big tech companies, startups and VCs - can be a trusted partner.

In this case, our democracy may depend on it.

Published in Inc.

Bradley Tusk