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Mobile voting introduced for one US election, reports say

The county that includes Seattle is reportedly testing online voting via phones.

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King County residents will be able to submit their votes via phone.

Angela Lang/CNET
This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's full coverage of the 2020 elections.

Mobile voting is here, but only for one county in Washington state. King County, which includes Seattle and has a population of almost 2.2 million, has introduced electronic voting via phone in the upcoming King Conservation District Board of Supervisors election. The election typically has a voter turnout of just 3%, The Seattle Times said Wednesday.

The process will see voters' choices recorded onto a PDF, which they verify and then submit via email. The email is printed in King County's offices and submitted like a mail-in ballot, including with signature verification, said Julie Wise, King County Elections director.

"This is electronic access and return of your ballot," Wise explained. "There's no special app, there's no electronic storage of votes."

DemocracyLive is providing the portal for secure online ballot access and return, she said. King County Elections already uses this vendor for its overseas and military voters and has "never had a security breach or issue with that system."

Votes will be accepted from Wednesday until the day of the election on Feb. 11. Tusk Philanthropies, which is reportedly funding the pilot, told NPR that mobile voting is "the most fundamentally transformative reform you can do in democracy." 

King County won't be using mobile voting or electronic returns in any other upcoming elections during 2020, however.

Efforts to conduct elections by phone demonstrate the challenges of using technology to make it easier to vote. A few local elections in Canada have taken place over phone and internet, and some of them have faced technical difficulties. What's more, scammers have confused the issue by telling people they could vote by text when, in fact, they couldn't. In 2016, deceptive Twitter ads tried to fool people into thinking they could vote by texting "Hillary" to a specific phone number.

US voters abroad can use the internet to vote, but they also have to waive their right to a secret ballot. The process can involve receiving a ballot by email, printing it out, and then scanning a completed ballot to email back to elections officials.

Originally published Jan. 22.
Update, Jan. 23: Adds comment and detail from Wise.

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