HUNTINGTON — According to research done by a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, West Virginia's mobile voting app for residents overseas increased voter turnout from 3 to 5 percentage points.
West Virginia became the first U.S. state to utilize mobile voting in a federal election, allowing it for overseas voters from 24 of its 55 counties in 2018. Associate professor Anthony Fowler studied this trial to assess the likely effects of mobile voting on the size and composition of the voting population.
The research, presented this month at the Election Science, Reform & Administration Conference at the University of Pennsylvania, underscores that the ability to cast votes on a mobile device could potentially have a powerful effect on voter turnout while drastically lowering the cost of voting, Fowler said. At the same time, current survey data shows that many Americans are wary of online voting.
"When West Virginia registered voters living abroad had the opportunity to vote online, they were 6 to 9 percentage points more likely to request a ballot, mobile or otherwise, and 3 to 5 percentage points more likely to actually cast a ballot," Fowler said. "The effects of voting online could potentially be even greater if it were implemented in a more convenient way or for a population that didn't have to first submit a Federal Post Card Application in order to receive a ballot. Mobile voting could have a profound impact on increasing voter turnout and potentially reduce inequalities in participation."
Fowler said because not all counties participated in mobile voting, it presented a good control group to be able to study the effects.
He said the increase is not insignificant.
"It's more than other forms of alternative voting, like early voting, weekend voting, by mail," Fowler said.
Fowler said the ease of mobile voting has the ability to increase turnout in marginalized communities.
"We know the people most likely to vote are older, whiter and richer," Fowler said. "If you could just download an app, for basically free, you can imagine that could have a drastic effect on turnout."
The mobile voting app was the result of Secretary of State Mac Warner's interest in breaking down barriers that have long prevented uniformed services members from having the same or similar ease of access and secure opportunities to participate in elections as those voting stateside. During his nearly three decades of service to the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Justice, Warner experienced firsthand the difficulties of voting overseas.
"West Virginians are proud that we are investing in new technology to encourage and help our military members stay civically engaged," Warner said in a release. "This mobile application will allow military men and women in remote areas of the world to participate in elections back home."
Fowler said along with increasing voter turnout, mobile voting has the potential to decrease the cost of elections - in the long run, at least. While administrative costs to start up mobile voting are higher now, Fowler said he could see a future where county clerks only need to await voting results to come in on a computer, which would reduce administrative costs.
But despite the benefits, cybersecurity experts and many Americans are still wary of mobile voting. Based on a poll he conducted, the public is concerned their vote would be less likely to be counted, and if mobile voting was their only option, many would opt not to vote at all.
"I think there is good reason to be concerned," Fowler said. "We are not really sure how secure it is. Cybersecurity people will tell you they are very concerned. There is no verifiable paper trail. You can always go back and audit a paper ballot, where here, if someone hacks into the votes network, you don't know if it happened or how many votes were changed."
West Virginia's app uses two types of biometric identity verification (i.e. facial recognition liveness software and thumb/palm print) to verify the user's identity at each stage of the process and has undergone numerous third-party security assessments, though critics say more security assessments need to be done.
The new technology seems to be catching on, however. In the early summer of 2019, the city and county of Denver, Colorado, followed West Virginia's lead by allowing military mobile voting for overseas military members in their municipal election.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.