Wireless voting still has a long way to go

Americans first must trust electronic voting, which is still problematic

With the growth in smartphones and their use in U.S. presidential campaigns, could there come a day when Americans might vote wirelessly?

That question was posed to a panel of mobile campaign experts at the Brookings Institution during a webcast Tuesday. The prevailing view was that wireless voting in the U.S. is a long way off.

Considering that many ballots in the U.S. are still done with paper, electronic voting over a wireless device such as a smartphone is "a long ways away," said Katie Harbath, associate manager of policy for Facebook. She noted that delegates to the Iowa Republican Caucus in February still voted with pen and paper.

Scott Goodstein, founder and CEO of Revolution Messaging, agreed, saying there have been problems with electronic voting at polling places in previous elections. The U.S. is not as advanced as some other countries in using electronic voting, he said.

Clark Gibson, professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego, said Americans are concerned about keeping their votes secret, making mobile voting unlikely in the near term.

He added that mobile banking is catching on quickly, where customers can use smartphones to make cash transfers and more. That's working because banks have insurance for fraudulent transactions to protect customers, he said.

"If there's voter fraud, there's no real insurance from fraudulent votes," Gibson said. Some day in the distant future there might be "quadruple firewalls and a way to backcheck a vote."

Darrell West, vice president of Brookings, which conducts public policy research, said that while the American public, in surveys, has shown wide support for electronics innovation, the one exception is with electronic voting. Up to 70% of survey participants don't favor electronic voting, due to concerns about fraud and cheating, which casts doubt on the likelihood of wireless voting, he added.

West said the small nation of Estonia may have the most online voting of any country, and it has proved fairly successful.

On another topic, the panel was asked how much presidential candidates are spending on their mobile campaign efforts. West said candidates typically spend 10% of their outreach and advertising budgets on digital efforts of all types, including mobile and Web sites. With outreach and advertising comprising about 45% to 55% of a presidential campaign, about 4% is going toward digital campaigning, he said.

Harbath, who said she previously had worked on a GOP app for the iPhone , urged campaign staffs to develop mobile strategies that focus on making a few basic technologies work well.

"Don't forget the fundamentals, and [avoid] going for the bright shiny thing," she said. "Make sure the [campaign] Web site looks good on mobile, and email looks good on mobile and figure out text" on mobile.

The panelists didn't fault President Obama or the Republican candidates for problems recently found with their mobile campaign Web sites.

Mobile technology does play a role in U.S. politics, however. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center found that 26% of Americans used their cell phones to learn about or take part in the 2010 mid-term elections.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

Read more about mobile and wireless in Computerworld's Mobile and Wireless Topic Center.

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