Smartphone democracy precedent to be set in Seattle

A Washington State NGO is going to allow online voting in the election of its new board supervisor, which could set a precedent that will transform how democracy functions.

The agency in question is called the King Conservation District and its stated aim is to ‘promote the sustainable use of natural resources through responsible stewardship.’ Since the worst that could probably happen if the wrong person is made its board supervisor is that a relatively small amount of public money is poorly allocated, this seems like a low-risk place to dabble with novel methods of voting.

While the move has been reported as a first for smartphone voting in the US, a look at the KCD website reveals that it’s a broader electronic voting system, accessible via a browser on any connected computing device. But even that seems to be a first, so imagine how disruptive it will be when democracy apps start appearing.

It looks like the whole project is being driven by VC firm Tusk Ventures, that specialises in helping startups disrupt established industries by providing money and expertise on taking on vested interests and political inertia. Shaking up the electoral system seems to be one of its pet projects, in part because low voter turnout tends to favour incumbents over disruptors.

“Today, we’re announcing that all 1.2 million residents of King County (Seattle) will be able to vote in a local election on their phone,” tweeted Tusk Ventures founder Bradley Tusk. “This is the biggest test of mobile voting ever and the biggest innovation in democracy in decades.”

Inevitably there is considerable disquiet among the commentariat about this move, principally surrounding the matter of ballot box integrity. The fear is that electronic voting is much more vulnerable to fraud than using bits of paper, and that’s hard to argue with. But since we can now manage all our personal affairs using a smartphone, including banking, the technology presumably exists to ensure a high degree of security and integrity.

Having said that, it’s hard to imagine the announcement coming at a worse time, given what we’re learning about the phone hack of one of the richest people in the world, and broader anxiety about election meddling. Electronic voting seems inevitable, but the main obstacle will be cultural inertia. Only a large portfolio of successful experiments and pilot projects will legitimise it in the eyes of the public, so it’s good to see that process get started.


UPDATE 08:30 24 Jan 2020: Tusk Ventures got in touch to tell us that it’s Tusk Philanthropies, not them, that is involved in this project. Same bloke, different organizations, it seems.

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