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Expert Brief

How Technology Can Revolutionize Democracy

Applied correct, technology can help boost election participation, increase integrity, improve the voting experience, and even curb the influence of big money in politics — and it could be done with proven applications from the public or private sector.

Published: July 21, 2016

Crossposted with

As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton receive their official party nominations, many Americans are questioning the health of our democracy. Large numbers of voters say they are dissatisfied with their choices.  But beyond this particular election, the “democracy trends” have been troubling for some time: voter turnout hit record lows in recent years, reports of hours-long lines at the polls have become increasingly common, our creaky election infrastructure is near collapse, and the super-wealthy dominate political spending (frequently in secret) as they have not since at least before Watergate.

Trump and Clinton both have an opportunity to outline their visions for a democracy that works better for all Americans, one where every vote is counted — and counted securely. One where every citizen has an opportunity to be heard.  And where Americans have more choices, and the ability to hold officials accountable when they put the benefits of special interests ahead of their constituents.

Technology can and should be central to that blueprint. The same technologies that have transformed American life — from the internet to computer tablets to mobile apps — can help transform elections.

Applied correctly, technology can help boost participation, increase integrity, improve the voting experience, and even curb the influence of big money. An up-to-date election system would be both cheaper to run and more secure. And it could be done with proven applications from the public or private sector.

With all eyes on the conventions during this rollercoaster election season, here are some key improvements leading policymakers should consider to improve American democracy:

Bring Voter Registration Into the 21st Century.

Voter registration is one of the nation’s biggest election problems. In much of the country, today’s paper-based system is riddled with errors, as officials struggle to transcribe handwritten forms. A 2012 Pew study found that 24 million registrations, 1 in 8 records, are invalid or have serious mistakes, such as an incorrect address. This raises the prospect of abuse and manipulation, and can lead to long lines on Election Day — nearly 3 million voters had registration problems at the polls in 2012.

Government must become an active participant, not a detached recipient, in voter registration. Using electronic databases that already exist, states can take responsibility for registering citizens so they are automatically added to the voter rolls when they interact with government agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles. Using these same databases, we can ensure voters stay on the rolls when they move too.  Five states have already adopted automatic registration, and it’s gaining traction nationally —a bill recently introduced in Congress would automatically register voters in all 50 states.  We’re already seeing promising returns in the states. Oregon — the first in the nation to begin the process — has quadrupled the number of new registrants from its Motor Vehicles Department compared to previous years.

At the same time, we should make it easier for citizens to register on their own. Although it defies belief, nearly a dozen states still do not allow Americans to register or update their records online. Online registration is hardly new. Arizona began using it 14 years ago. Nor is it expensive. The average cost of an online system is $250,000. The savings can be huge. California saved $2 million in 2012 alone, quickly recouping its costs.

Taken together, these steps could add more than 50 million Americans to the voter rolls.

Replace Antiquated Voting Machines.

Two years ago, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administrationwarned there is an “impending crisis … from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago.” No one expects a laptop to work well after 10 years, and the same is true with voting machines. Yet this November, 43 states will use machines at least that old. Continuing to use machines past their projected lifespans poses many risks, including more crashes and failures, longer lines at polling places, and shaken voter confidence.

Fortunately, planning for the next generation of voting equipment is already underway. Instead of contracting with high-priced outside vendors selling proprietary systems, bothLos Angeles County (the nation’s largest voting jurisdiction) and Travis County (Austin), Texas are developing open source systems that could use standard off-the-shelf components, like iPads and commercial printers. In the long run, such systems will be cheaper to produce and replace than current ones, and offer Americans more choice about when and where they vote.

Leverage Technology to Make Big Money Matter Less.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have resulted in an explosion of super PAC money and other new forms of election spending — almost $2 billion in federal elections since 2010. These groups are largely funded by a tiny cadre of mega-donors. In 2014, for example, 100 donors accounted for 70 percent of super PAC spending.

But with the right policies, new technologies can make this type of big money matter less, by lowering barriers for candidates without mega-donors and making small donations matter more. The Internet, especially social media, has made it less expensive than ever for candidates to reach their supporters. And innovative platforms like Nationbuilder and Run for America provide basic campaign services at the lowest possible cost.

At the same time, to effectively counterbalance the power of big donations, we must increase the value of small donations. New York City has come up with one of the most effective ways to do this, providing matching funds for small donations in municipal elections. The key to the system is a 6:1 match for contributions up to $175. That means a $175 donation is worth $1,225 to the candidate. This unshackles candidates from their dependence on large donors. The system has created more small donors, more diverse candidates, and greater parity in campaign spending.

Technology makes the city’s system work better. Over the last decade, there has been an exponential rise in small donations over the Internet. Recently New York adapted a new web based tool that will allow campaigns to transmit all information needed for a matchable contribution in one click, to make requesting and receiving online and mobile phone contributions even easier. Broad adoption of mobile technology into the campaign finance system is particularly critical to re-democratizing campaign funding, given the increasing number of Americans (especially younger and low-income people) who rely on their smartphones for connectivity.

Use the Internet to Boost Transparency.

The crowning irony of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Citizens United ruling was the assertion that unlimited independent spending would not harm the public because “[w]ith the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable.” Excluding party committees, nearly one-third of non-candidate spending in federal races in 2012 and 2014 came from groups that don’t disclose their donors, representing a $480 million underground effort to sway the electorate. Even Kennedy himself has conceded that disclosure “is not working the way it should.”

Gridlock and timidity at agencies such as the FEC, SEC, and IRS, and most especially in Congress, prevents Americans from seeing who underwrites their elections. However, President Obama or his successor could increase transparency by requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending.

It would also help for the U.S. Senate to finally discover the microchip. Senate candidates and their committees still file campaign reports on paper, initially sending them to the secretary of senate, whose office scans the documents — which can be thousands of pages — and then sends them to the FEC to print, scan again, and post online. It can take up to 30 days to fully integrate a report into the FEC’s online database. By contrast, electronically filed reports are available within minutes. The FEC estimates it would save $430,000 annually if Senate mandarins filed the same way as their House colleagues.

More than 80 years ago, a Brookings Institution report concluded, “There is probably no other phase of public administration in the United States which is so badly managed as the conduct of elections.” Sadly, things haven’t improved much. But today’s technology allows policymakers to give people the democracy they deserve at little cost.