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Our Views: Embracing the future at the polls

High-tech voting options boost convenience, participation, but must remain fully secure

POSTED: April 6, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Just in time for this year’s elections, registering to vote in Georgia may get a little easier.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp last week announced new options for paperless voter registration options that could be more convenient for voters and save the state time and money.

Georgia voters with a valid state driver’s license can access online registration through the “My Voter Page” on the Secretary of State’s website. Mobile users can access it through a “GA Voter” application.

The goal is to give more people access to the process and encourage more of them to sign up before the May 20 primary. The deadline to register for that election is April 21.

Such Web-based registration programs come after Georgia lawmakers drafted regulations in 2012 to allow online registration. More than a dozen states now offer this, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A study of a similar program in Arizona showed a saving of about 80 cents per voter application, which could add up over time. More important than the cost savings, though, is the idea of encouraging greater participation in our democratic system.

In particular, online registration is likely to appeal to younger voters more plugged into new technology. As it so happens, that’s the group of voters that traditionally has turned out in the lowest percentages, so such a move could help motivate a new generation of participating citizens.

That was the case in the Arizona study, which found that 93 percent of voters under age 34 registered online for the 2008 election.

Over the years, our nation’s system of holding elections has been rather slow to adapt to technology, but this move could be another step in the direction of modernizing and improving the process. It began with the electronic voting machines rolled out in the early 2000s that have worked well, despite fears of tampering and paper-trail accountability. They have streamlined vote counting, are easy to maintain and user-friendly, becoming second nature even to those not as comfortable with high-tech gadgetry.

Other changes have been made to help draw more people to the polls. Early voting has been extremely popular, spreading out the process over several weeks to allow voters unavailable on Election Day to cast a ballot. Even a Saturday voting day each election has allowed folks unable to escape work during poll hours to make their choices.

All of these reforms have helped increase turnout in recent elections, especially among young people and minorities.

Now that registration has taken the next step, we could just be a few years away from being able to vote online or via a smartphone or tablet device, once a foolproof method of securing such a system is found.

This progress brings pluses beyond cost and convenience, but also a few potential downsides. While making registration and voting itself more accessible is a worthy goal, it’s important to maintain a system that is airtight and verifiable.

We all know the dangers that hackers, viruses and other computer maladies can inflict on our Web devices. How long would it take nefarious cyber criminals to figure out how to undermine an election from a coffee shop or basement lair?

We saw an election hinging on the nonsense of counting “hanging chads,” pieces of paper stuck to a cardboard ballot, during the 2000 presidential election snarl in Florida. The notion that a mere click of a mouse could inflict even more chaos is sobering.

So while both registration and voting itself should be as available, convenient and transparent as possible, we can’t move too fast toward a high-tech system that will create more problems than it solves.

Beyond that, there’s something quaint about the time-honored American tradition of heading to the polls every few years. It’s a nice ritual of citizenship: We gather with fellow countrymen on a crisp November morning at a school, church or community center and stand in line to make our choice.

We chat up the poll workers, and sometimes take our children so they can see this rite of citizenship at work. After our ballot is cast, we get an “I Voted” sticker we wear proudly the rest of the day. It would be a shame to lose that completely.

What we need is what Americans love most: choices. Blend the best of both worlds by keeping the tactile experience of voting while offering technological methods that improve the process. Those who prefer the more personal style of voting should continue to have that option, while a secure method of doing so electronically is available to others.

And though we’re all for making voting easier, let’s not forget casting a ballot is a privilege of citizenship as much as a right, and needs to be taken seriously. As with anything worth doing, there should be some effort required on our part beyond clicking a button on a screen.

Regardless of how we vote, we need to focus on who we vote for. We owe it to each other, our community and our nation to do our homework, study the candidates carefully and elect the best people.

If and when voting becomes too easy, we wouldn’t want to see the results reflect the small amount of work we put into it.


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