Digital democracy reforms tends to advance or retreat in fits and starts, but when exigent circumstances require more from us and our governments, change can happen unexpectedly.
On May 26, I requested an absentee ballot, intending to cast my vote in the DC Primary remotely due to concerns about coronavirus pandemic. But, like many Washingtonians, I never received a ballot.
So one week later, on June 2, 2020, I voted over email for the first time.
I wasn’t alone: DC Board of Elections spokeswoman Rachel Coll told the Washington Post that the District decided on Monday to allow Washingtonians who had tried and failed to get absentee ballots to vote-by-email.
“It’s something we’ve used as an option and we’ve had in reserve,” she said.
The process I used to vote over email was mundane, but an interesting example of how the machinery of democracy can be adapted to the platforms and tools available to voters and our government in 2020.
🗳️ If you requested but did not receive your absentee ballot, you can use a vote by email/PDF option
🗳️ To request a PDF ballot email email@example.com
🗳️ Copy @tweetelissa at firstname.lastname@example.org#vote
— CM Silverman Office (@CM_Silverman) June 2, 2020
I learned about the novel option to cast my vote by email what I saw a tweet from DC Councilor Elissa’s Silverman’s Office tweet.
After I responded and followed up over email, the DC Board of Elections reached out directly to me over Twitter, and then email.
I used a form on a DC government webpage, downloaded my ballot as a PDF, filled it out and signed it, obtained my voter registration information from a different website, and then the document to a dedicated address with that voter information and the text of an affidavit affirming my legal status in the body.
Given how long people waited to vote around Washington yesterday, the fact that I was able to do so online is an uncomfortable privilege, at best. Given the opportunity and context, however, I wanted to see how or if it would work instead of standing in a line for hours during a pandemic.
It seems to have worked — for me. But offering “vote by email” to all would be risky at scale and require new investments in personnel, technology, and public engagement. If the pandemic is raging this fall, it might be necessary for the Council of DC to make them.
There are security and privacy risks to consider, alongside systemic inequities in Internet access across the District. But one future of digital democracy has already arrived: as with others, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.