On Wednesday, voters across King County will, for the first time, be able to cast their ballots online, via mobile phone or touch-screen device.
There is a catch.
Online voting will be available for the King Conservation District Board of Supervisors election, a contest so obscure that voters have typically had to specifically request a ballot to vote. King Conservation District elections have typically drawn voter turnout of 1% to 3%.
Still, it will be the first election anywhere in the country in which every registered voter is eligible to vote online, according to Tusk Philanthropies, the nonprofit partnering with the county to implement the system. And county officials are viewing the online election as a pilot project that could, if successful, be a step toward expanding electronic access in all elections.
“This election could be a key step in moving toward electronic access and return for voters across the region,” King County Director of Elections Julie Wise said. “My role here is to remove barriers to voting.”
Wise acknowledged that, in a world where everything online is theoretically vulnerable to hacking, many may be leery about voting online.
“There’s a lot of things we do online, banking, health records, that are also of concern for people that are secure,” Wise said. “I’ve vetted this, technology experts in the region have vetted this to ensure that this is a safe, secure voting opportunity.”
She also stressed that it’s not something they’re about to roll out for all King County elections.
The King Conservation District covers all of King County except for Enumclaw, Federal Way, Milton, Pacific and Skykomish, and has been around since 1949. It works with landowners to help them implement conservation practices — things like habitat restoration, forest management and shoreline protection — on private property. It has no regulatory powers, and landowners have no obligation to work with it.
It has 35 employees, an annual budget of $7.8 million and a five-person volunteer board of supervisors, three of whom are elected. Candidates in this year’s election are Chris Porter, a beekeeper and pharmaceutical salesman; and Stephen “Dutch” Deutschman, a retired air-cargo worker. Through a quirk of state law, the conservation district runs its own elections and those elections must be held in the first quarter of the year (i.e., not in August or November when the county holds countywide elections).
Sending ballots to all 1.2 million voters in the conservation district would eat up somewhere between 10% and 25% of the agency’s budget. So, in the past few years, they’ve asked voters to go online and request a ballot, which then is mailed to the voter, who must then fill it out and mail it back to complete the process. About 3,500 people voted in last year’s election, less than 1% of registered voters.
“We have been looking for ways to increase awareness and increase voter participation for a number of years,” said Bea Covington, executive director of the conservation district. “We’re providing a really large beta test of this kind of ballot access.”
Registered voters will log into an online portal using their name and date of birth to get access to their ballot. Once they’ve voted on their online device, voters will sign their name on the device’s touch-screen and submit their ballot. After the ballot has been submitted, King County Elections downloads and prints a paper ballot, matches the submitted signature with the signature on file and tabulates the votes, county officials said.
“We’re going to do verification the same way we do for all of our elections, and that’s signature verification,” Wise said.
Voting begins Wednesday, when ballots are typically mailed for February elections, and ends on Election Day, Feb. 11.
Tusk Philanthropies, a nonprofit founded by an early investor in Uber, has been pushing to expand mobile voting across the United States for several years. In 2018, it partnered with the city of Denver to offer mobile voting to overseas and military voters.
This will be the ninth election across the country to offer mobile voting, Tusk said.
The online portal is operated by Democracy Live, a Seattle-based firm that King County Elections has previously used to help administer online voting for overseas, military and disabled voters. Those voters have been able to use the portal to download a ballot, that they then had to mail or email back.
Bryan Finney, CEO and founder of Democracy Live, said that in most states, overseas and military voters usually email or fax their ballots, which he said may be the least secure method of sending ballots.
“Voters with disabilities often cannot vote independently at home because they cannot see, mark or hold the ballot,” Finney said. “This pilot is an effort to show how all voters, including voters with disabilities and remote voters, can securely access and return their ballots in a more secure and accessible method.”