Political candidates don’t agree on much. But even Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are in unison about one subject: getting out the vote. As November draws near, Democrats and Republicans will implore their supporters to perform their civic duty by lining up at polling booths or dropping by early voting locations.
But it’s 2016. With the prevalence of technology right at our fingertips, isn’t it a bit antiquated to ask people to stand in line for hours so they can cast their votes in person?
If the government really wants to engage citizens -- and give each of us a fair chance to have our voice counted -- an update of our voting options is overdue. And this is a perfect opportunity for tech companies to lend a hand.
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The problems with polls
Today, more than 80 percent of voting-age Americans own smartphones. They’re accustomed to paying bills, making dinner reservations and having intimate conversations on their mobile devices, so it doesn’t make sense that exercising their democratic rights still requires a lengthy in-person commitment.
The U.S. voting system lags woefully behind the times.
Mobile platforms could improve access and accuracy throughout election cycles. An example of where this could be useful is polling: Polling continues to be based on an outdated system that samples people according to irrelevant metrics.
And that outdated system is likely to provide inaccurate measurements. Case in point: Despite the fact that 60 percent of Americans rely on mobile phones most or all of the time, polling firms use robo-dialers that exclusively target land lines. Whole swaths of the population no longer have land lines.
What's more, besides having land lines, people must be home when polling firms call and be willing to answer unknown caller ID numbers. Given the 0.9 percent response rate to telephone polls, it’s clear that those conditions don’t occur often.
Even when they do, the results are skewed. Polling companies can influence people’s answers by how they phrase their questions. Most don’t conduct substantial follow-ups, so their reports lack in-depth context. And because of those logistical requirements already mentioned -- having a land line or being home when pollsters call -- participants tend to be older, which excludes millions of eligible voters and taints the results.
Still, current polling methods remain popular because they’re inexpensive and easy to deploy; but they don’t provide a true picture of the voting public. Research shows that most people overstate their likelihood of voting when responding to surveys.
Poll results are also based on vague questions and guesses as to how many people will actually turn out on Election Day, so the insights they offer are highly suspect. Mobile software has the potential to provide much more accurate information.
The mobile challenge
Certainly there are challenges to mobile voting platforms. A shift to online voting would require buy-in from state and federal governments, including funding for custom apps and secure servers.
And, before any widespread mobile voting initiative took root, governments and their tech partners would have to foolproof their authentication systems to prevent fraud. That job would fall mainly on software developers, who would need to inoculate platforms against data manipulation without creating too high a barrier to entry. Then there would be the question of how to ensure that each eligible voter had access to a smartphone or another voting platform.
But those obstacles aren’t insurmountable.
People will be far more inclined to answer surveys if they can do that from their phones. Mobile software presents a much more robust way of obtaining people’s genuine opinions and following up while users are already engaged. The growing pains the country would experience during the initial shift would pay off tremendously in terms of accurate reporting and voter turnout.
Tech will drive mobile democracy
It’s too late to implement a mobile voting system for 2016, but lawmakers and technologists could develop a workable platform by the 2020 election. In fact, they could do it by the 2018 midterms if they act swiftly.
Therein lies the opportunity for tech companies. Innovative software developers should act now to create mobile polling options that could be adopted as soon as the next election cycle. Here’s how to do it:
1. Create a user-friendly mobile polling system.
Civic-minded citizens will appreciate the ability to opt-in to different poll platforms and make their voices heard. This will provide far more reliable data than is currently available, because these people will be choosing to engage.
If they take the initiative to participate in a poll, they’ll also likely prioritize voting. Their responses will offer valuable insights into public opinion ahead of the election.
2. Implement data mining layers in the UX and UI designs.
Pollsters and politicians will want access to multiple data layers once they have a better way of reaching constituents.
An initial series of two to five questions could expand to additional sub-questions based on people’s responses. For instance, “If the election were held today, which candidate would you choose?” might be followed by, “Of the following policies this candidate supports, which most closely aligns with your own views?” Such questions create a more nuanced picture of why people lean one way or the other.
3. Partner with nonpartisan organizations.
Even the best platforms fail if no one uses them. Tech companies will have to work with nongovernmental and civic organizations to promote their software and engage as many users as possible.
Political parties and special interest groups will likely need to get on board, too. They already want to gather as much data and as many votes as they can -- and a sleek, easy-to-use mobile platform would serve as a great way to do that. But tech companies would have to make sure their apps themselves were strictly objective in order to yield the highest-quality information.
Given the prevalence of mobile devices in the United States, mobile polling and voting are inevitable. The sooner the government embraces that fact, the stronger our political environment will be. People make no secret these days that they are disillusioned by both politicians and polls, which is why mobile options are needed -- to breathe new life into the country.
That's where tech companies will come in. They'll spur the modernization of the American political system by devising smart, intuitive platforms that inspire voters to get involved. Are you listening, tech startups?