How to Increase Voter Turnout & Reduce Fraud

Digital identity verification has advanced, both technologically and legislatively. Is it the answer to simpler, safer voting?

Husayn Kassai, Co-Founder and CEO, Onfido

October 29, 2020

5 Min Read

Recently, early voting began in Georgia with some people waiting in line for 11 hours to cast their ballot. It's not surprising that in the last US election there was a dismal 56% turnout. In today's world of advanced technology, shouldn't it be possible to make voting simpler, safer, and more accessible?

Election years bring a number of partisan arguments that aim to secure a certain advantage for a particular political party. 2020 is no different as the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the presidential campaign spur questions from both parties. How safe is it for people to vote in-person? Have we tightened up our security measures to enable alternatives? If certain regions are experiencing new COVID cases, how will people vote?

We're at a critical and fragile point in political history, enabling 100% of the eligible population to vote has never been more important.

Mail-in voting is one way to cast a ballot if you are unable to do it in-person and historically has involved technology at the point ballots are counted. This method of voting began in the 1860s, allowing military personnel to vote while serving in the Civil War. Now, voters in 34 states can request a mail-in ballot. With 80 million citizens predicted to cast their votes by mail, this has unsurprisingly shone a spotlight on how these states will verify the identities of their constituents, as some claim it will increase the likelihood of voter fraud.

Despite many states allowing all registered voters to vote by mail, not every state provides the same criteria. While Alaska requires a witness signature on all ballots, Alabama requires voters to submit a copy of their photo ID and two signatures. The process can be complicated, making it easy for voters to authenticate ballots incorrectly, and therefore increasing the potential for fraud, if not rejected ballots. Some 87,000 ballots were thrown out for signature mismatch in the 2016 presidential election.

We've come a long way from voting in public squares by raising our hands. Technology can now be included in the paper-based process of mail-in voting via a barcode to establish a voter's digital identity. Yet there is still a disconnect on how this works and as we get closer to November, the discussion around voter fraud will only intensify.

Enabling the eligible population to vote has never been more important, yet COVID-19 may stand in the way. For this reason, it is crucial to fully understand the conversation around mail-in voting, and how putting the right technology in place could increase voter turnout and reduce fraud.

Mail-in Voting Objections
Mail-in voting concerns have surged as the pandemic shows no end in sight, providing limited voting options for individuals. For some, mail-in voting is synonymous with fraud, as opponents believe that it is nearly impossible to minimize associated threats like identity fraud. Many maintain that adversaries could potentially impersonate a deceased person, intercept someone else's ballot, or vote more than once.

In one example earlier this year, two elected officials in New Jersey were charged with voter fraud that resulted in 20% of the ballots for the state's municipal election being rejected.

While cases like this are rare, they do exist. But despite concerns, US citizens seem relatively comfortable with voting via mail, with a report from Okta finding that 67% of Americans support mail-in voting to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The country's highest priority should therefore be to provide a platform that not only makes voting safer but more accessible for all.

Technology's Role in Mail-in Voting
Biometrics have the potential to play a huge role in the mail-in voting process, providing the opportunity to securely verify voters and lessen the amount of fraudulent votes. The technology is available to authenticate ballots where users remotely and securely verify their identity by taking a photo of their government-issued ID and a selfie. This process then binds that person to their electronic ballot.

While a digital solution won't be ready in time for this year's US election, the current situation points to some of the benefits that could be achieved by such a solution.

Some countries have already implemented a completely digital process for voting, highlighting its privacy, security, and accessibility benefits. Estonia, for example, has proved an e-voting model can safeguard the process for citizens and increase voter turnout. In 2019, 43.8% of Estonia's electorate voted online, contributing to a 63% voter turnout, compared with the 56% total US turnout in the 2016 US presidential election.

Financial institutions have been implementing biometrics to verify identities for years, helping mitigate account fraud during customer onboardings and everyday banking transactions. Similarly, the US Postal Service is exploring this concept for future elections, filing a patent that proposes sending voters a unique code in the mail they can use to verify their identity and vote digitally.

The Way Forward
The first step to enabling e-voting is for federal and state governments to standardize their digital identity fabrics. This is currently being championed in the Senate through the Improving Digital Identity Act of 2020, marking a significant evolution in how we approach digital identity. Once a standard has been agreed upon, the ability to vote by a mobile device could significantly speed up the process. With 81% of US adults saying they own a smartphone and over 70% having a driver's license, you could vote from the comfort of your home. Mobile applications could be used in place of polling stations with voters remotely and securely verifying their identity.

With the COVID-19 pandemic creating barriers for citizens across the US, democratizing voting and creating an accessible process is as crucial as ever. Enabling inclusion and limiting fraud all starts with optimizing the right technology and putting a secure identity system in place that prioritizes security and privacy at the forefront.

About the Author(s)

Husayn Kassai

Co-Founder and CEO, Onfido

Husayn Kassai is Co-Founder and CEO of Onfido. He is a World Economic Forum "Tech Pioneer", Forbes Contributor & "30 Under 30". He has a BA in Economics and Management, Oxford University. Founded in 2012, Onfido has grown to a team of 400; received over $200m in funding; and works with over 1,500 fintech, banking and marketplace clients globally.

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