July 9, 2010

Even iPhone-Using Cowgirls Get the Blues

Posted in Election reform, Elections, internet voting, UOCAVA, voting tagged , , , at 11:52 am by bluebanshee

Yes, even cowgirls (and cowboys) can get the blues when they’re astride a horse or behind the wheel of a jeep out in the don’t-fence-me-in terrain of the West.  Nary a cell-tower in sight amidst all the purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain. Not even “another roadside attraction” (apologies to Tom Robbins for the double reference to his novels).

Hence even fancy iPhones will not work in the wide open spaces – no cell phone coverage in a dead zone. Also no internet service.

It’s hard for those who live in dense urban areas where internet cafes abound to realize that there are places in the U.S. of A. without access to cell phone or internet service. But it is true that there are wide swaths of territory where this is the reality.

So when some folks advocate for voting via the internet and suggest that iPhones could allow voters to cast their vote anywhere these pushers of internet voting are simply being unrealistic about the reach of technology. The access is simply not there for American voters in rural areas. In addition, many voters in urban areas lack access to computers and the internet. This access also correlates with race, education-level and income, with certain groups having limited access.

In a statement that simply focuses on voter registration via the internet rather than the more complex area of internet voting, Project Vote points out that their studies show certain groups being disadvantaged vis-a-vis internet access. http://www.projectvote.org/blog/?p=689

Internet access at home is often related to income or education-attainment.

Compared to 73.9 percent of U.S. panel homes that have Internet access, only 39 percent of those with no high school degree report having Internet at home, and just 41 percent of citizens earning $25,000 per year or less have online access, according to a 2009 Project Vote research memo by consultant, Jody Herman. African-American and Latino citizens are also less likely to have Internet access at home (63%). Latinos, in particular, demonstrate low voter registration rates at 12 percentage points behind the voting eligible population in addition to their greater likelihood to lack of Internet access.

If voters do not have access to the internet for registration, they won’t have it for voting either. So these statistics are relevant for predicting internet access for voting.

It is important to point out that these groups already face the greatest number of barriers to voting and participate at a lesser rate that the rest of the voting-eligible population. So internet voting really does not remove barriers from these groups. It does not make voting more convenient for lower-income voters – nor for Latino or African-American voters in general. Collin Lynch who has dual credentials as a PhD student in Intelligent Systems (yes, a computer geek!) and President of VoteAllegheny.org (yes, an activist, too) sums it up this way in a recent email:

It bears mentioning that we have to ask, convenient for whom? In theory the ability to “vote from anywhere” seems like an easy sell except that the very populations that have a hard time voting now, the poor, or
underserved minorities, are also the least likely to have easy access to a
PC or the free time to use it. Yes, there are internet cafes and public
libraries in some places but I suspect that looks a lot more convenient to
some than it does to others.

The reason that I doubt the “it will increase turnout” argument is that
the one population who is most likely to take advantage of it, wealthier
groups or the iPhone owners already can vote they may choose not to but they face no fundamental barriers that poorer populations do. So the issue really is that this seems more convenient to the people selling it and the decision makers but is not likely to be more convenient for the
full segment of society.

Another argument that is often advanced in favor of internet voting is that it would make it easier for Americans living/working abroad, including deployed military. The same technical challenges encountered by cowpokes (and others) in the American West, would also face those deployed in the mountains of Afghanistan and other remote locations.

Given the inherently insecure nature of the internet, which I addressed in an earlier blog post (See “The Perils of Internet Voting”) there is no reason to put the ballots of deployed soldiers at greater risk from hacking, viruses, spyware, spam, and ID theft so rampant on the internet today than other voters. If anything, the votes of deployed military should be given greater security than the general population, given the level of sacrifice these soldiers are making in our country’s behalf.

Some might well ask: if internet voting is not the preferred solution for overseas voters, what should be done to make sure deployed military and citizens living/working abroad (UOCAVA) can participate in the electoral process on an equal footing with the rest of the electorate?

Good question.

The answer, in my opinion, is to rely on tried-and-true paper ballots. The modern twist would be to distribute and return ballots via express package delivery (UPS, FedEx, USPS). It is much cheaper and more trackable than internet voting, if one considers the costs of programming and maintaining a secure computerized ballot system with internet access.

This approach would not solve the problem of cowboys and cowgirls riding the range: Do UPS or FedEx even deliver to cowpokes on horseback or Jeep? These cowpokes could vote when they get back into town, just like everyone else.

They still might get the blues when their iPhones don’t work but at least they’ll be able to cast a ballot.

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