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Electronic elections: One app, one vote

Smartphone-based voting apps could help raise voter participation, if they can overcome a few hurdles

VOTERS in the US often struggle to make it to the polls to elect a president. In 2004, just over 60 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, but this was the highest turnout since 1968. In 2008, an "energised" populace topped that, and installed Barack Obama in the White House. Even then, that involved just 62 per cent of voters.

How can more Americans - and citizens of other democracies - be convinced to vote? Smartphones and tablet computers may help.

Bryan Campbell and his team at Rice University in Houston, Texas, designed an iPhone app for casting votes. They then asked 55 people aged between 18 and 69, with and without smartphone experience, to vote using either the app or via conventional electronic and paper systems.

All users typically took 90 seconds longer to cast their vote on the smartphone system. However, the app did seem to reduce the number of mistakes made in voting, at least among people familiar with smartphones. This group was more accurate when selecting the candidate of their choice using the app than on a conventional system. The researchers think they will be able to reduce the time taken by making adjustments to their app. The team will present the work this week at the annual meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Existing electronic voting systems have been slow to catch on. They were only used in about one third of ballots cast in the 2010 US federal midterm elections, despite having been available for several election cycles. This is in part due to lingering security issues, and it is likely that such problems will only be amplified if voting goes mobile.

"Today's mobile devices are on a platform that is much more insecure than the PC you have at home. There is no separation of applications," says Avi Rubin of the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Malware embedded in other apps could easily invade voting software, he says. "You can't be sure your Angry Birds application isn't changing your vote."

The US government wants to see voting practices improve. The 2000 presidential election was decided by a close result in Florida, but voting records there became mired in controversy. After this debacle, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, a law that many have interpreted as designed to bring voting practices into the 21st century.

"Some form of internet voting seems inevitable and it follows that smartphones and other internet-capable mobile technologies will play a role," says Campbell.

Campbell and his colleagues say they are aware of the security issues, and expect they will be addressed in the coming months and years. An app might not lead to a sudden rise in voter turnout, though, even among young people. They tend to be more electronically savvy, but young people are often apathetic towards politics, says Michael McDonald of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and the United States Elections Project.

The ballot itself is just one step, he says. People still have to register to vote and download the app. Easy as it may be, in order to do all of that, "you have to care", he says.

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Call up the vote (Image: Fred Prouser/Reuters/Corbis)

Call up the vote (Image: Fred Prouser/Reuters/Corbis)

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