Is Voting by Smartphone a Good Idea?

In late January and early February, more than a million voters in the Seattle area had the opportunity to cast ballots with their smartphones in a local election. The vote, which was part of a pilot program to test voting by mobile device, was to fill an open seat on a county environmental conservation board. It was the largest trial yet of this new technology, which more districts will likely consider as they grapple with how to conduct primary elections without exposing citizens to the threat of the coronavirus at the polls.

The head of a group working to increase voter turnout through mobile voting and an electronic voting security expert square off about whether more smartphone voting would be good for the country.

We use our phones for everything: talking to friends, reading the news, doing our jobs, paying our bills, and so much more. So why not use them to vote too?

Voter turnout in the United States is incredibly low compared with other countries. In 2018, only 53 percent of those eligible voted—and that was a record high for a modern midterm election. For local elections and presidential primaries the turnout rate is substantially lower—closer to 20 percent. This is a huge problem, because when so many Americans don’t participate in elections, we don’t see the policy changes we want.

Turnout rates are low because there are too many obstacles to voting in the U.S. In March, about 1,000 people in Houston, Texas, waited in line for six hours to cast their votes in the presidential primary. Many simply gave up and went home. Voters with physical disabilities often have a hard time getting to the polls. And this spring, we saw with the coronavirus pandemic how the risk of spreading a virus can make it dangerous to vote in person.

Smartphone voting can increase turnout by making it much easier to cast ballots.

We need to make voting simpler and more accessible. And that’s where smartphones come in.

As of March, my organization has been involved with nine successful pilot projects using smartphone voting in local and state elections. In 2019, Utah’s oldest resident, a 107-year-old woman, was able to use a secure app on an iPad to vote in municipal elections from her home.

Security is a big concern when it comes to mobile voting. That’s why it’s important to have government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and independent security firms continue to test this technology in local elections. We need to find vulnerabilities in advance, so the security of large elections isn’t compromised.

Mobile voting should not replace traditional forms of voting, but it should be an option. If we want to increase participation in our democracy, we need to bring voting into the 21st century.


CEO & Founder, Tusk Philanthropies

It seems almost anything can be done with a smartphone app, so why not voting? Wouldn’t it be better if we could conveniently vote with our phones? The answer, from nearly every computer security expert, is a resounding “no.”

Our democracy’s survival requires that citizens trust our elections, which are run by officials who control the process to ensure accurate results. No smartphone app is that reliable. A U.S. presidential election is the biggest target in the world for hackers. Even if bug-free apps could be written (and they can’t), it’s foolish to expect that our election won’t be attacked.

No app can reliably verify a voter’s identity. Voice or face authentication can be faked, and we don’t want our elections determined by votes cast from Moscow and Beijing. Voting via smartphone app requires many layers of software and networking, from multiple companies. Hacking only one of these would compromise or corrupt an entire election.

No smartphone app is reliable enough to ensure accurate voting results.

Those who support smartphone voting usually claim that turnout would go up if people could easily vote from their phones. Increasing turnout is important; we need all our citizens involved in the political process. But several reliable studies have been conducted, and none conclude that smartphone voting improves turnout.

We can improve our elections. We can improve turnout. We can improve trust in our elections. But listening to companies that are marketing software and not to those who know software and security is not the answer.  Even with large companies that have a lot to lose, we often hear of hacks and data breaches of their software. If the big banks can’t get security right, why should we expect elections to be any different?

Computers can do amazing things—most of the time.  But smartphone apps will invariably have security holes in them, and apps will fail, causing voters to distrust the results. A possible and unproven small gain in convenience is not worth the risk.


Professor of Computer Science, University of South Carolina

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