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Elections expert: automated voting from home ‘inevitable’

It wasn’t long ago that many Americans were turned off by the idea of early voting. Today, a majority of voters in several states, including Arizona, take advantage of it.

Many voters may similarly bristle at the notion of a fully automated vote-from-home system. But ready or not, at least one elections expert says it’s coming.

“Frankly, it’s inevitable,” said Bruce Merrill, senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “Eventually, there will be no polling places whatsoever.”

Over 82 percent of Arizona voters — including over 87 percent of Maricopa County residents — voted via early ballot in the Aug. 26 primary elections. Two states — Oregon and Washington — conduct their elections exclusively by mail-in ballot.

Merrill said this trend, along with exorbitant Election Day expenses, will soon cause polling places to disappear in all 50 states, ushering in the new high-tech voting era.

“It’s very expensive to set up polling places, to recruit and train people to run them,” he said. “There’s some probability that you can have errors, and the technology (to go automated) has existed for a long time.”

Merrill, who has tracked Arizona election and voting trends for over 40 years, said automated voting will be introduced in several states in four to eight years, and will spread to most of the country within 20 years.

What will an e-voting system look like?

“Basically what’s going to happen is just like how you sign up for healthcare today with Obamacare. You’re going to be (registering) by phone or by the Internet,” Merrill said.

“You’ll be able to call a number or put in a Web site, and you’ll be asked for a voter ID number. Once you put it into the computer, no one else can enter the system using that number.”

Merrill said voting will be as simple as punching in a number on your phone or computer to select the candidate you prefer. He used this year’s Arizona gubernatorial race as an example.

“If you’re going to vote for Doug Ducey, put in a 1; if you’re going to vote for Fred DuVal, put in a 2,” he said. “It’ll (list) all candidates and all issues with a subsystem that will allow you to make changes if you accidentally push something you didn’t mean to. At the end of the system, it’s going to ask if you’re comfortable with the choices you’ve made.”

“There are probably things to work out, but there’s no question in my mind that we can put together that system.”

Merrill said this technology has existed for at least 20 years — but citizens living in more sparsely populated areas like Apache County, where nearly two-thirds of voters still took the time to vote at a polling place during August’s primaries, tend to be the most resistant to change.

“In more rural areas in Arizona, it’s part of the culture of an area to go to the polls, and you know the people,” he said. “A lot of people kind of prefer that, even in those areas where they have these (early-voting) systems already.”

But voter turnout has actually increased in states where mail-in systems have been implemented, and Merrill expects a similar result once voting goes electronic.

“In states like Oregon where they only vote by mail, it’s increased turnout by 7 to 10 percent,” he said. “So, if one really believes in getting as many people involved in the system, it’s an opportunity for making it easier for people to vote.”

And eventually, Merrill said voters will come to embrace this new high-tech reality, just as they have with early voting.

“When vote by mail first came in about 20 years ago, people said it was going to ruin the political system. That hasn’t proven to be true,” he said.

Early voting for the Nov. 4 general election begins Thursday in Arizona.