At South by Southwest, Obama Calls on Tech Leaders to Make Online Voting a Reality


You can execute almost any function of human life using the internet. You can order food and transportation, pay for any kind of service and do your job from just about anywhere. But perhaps the last arena of digital possibilities we have yet to tackle might be the most important yet: voting.

At Austin, Texas' South by Southwest Interactive on Friday, President Barack Obama gave a keynote talk in which he asked the tech sector to build a reliable, seamless online voting platform to increase voter participation.

"It is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in a democracy, and that's to select who's going to represent you in government," the president said at SXSW.

The president added that this kind of project can't be the federal government's job — it's unconstitutional to develop a centralized, federal voting system. (Besides, as Obama reminded the crowd, we can't forget the Affordable Care Act website debacle.)

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Instead, he asked the designers and techies in the room, who are so broadly confident in their ability to reform government, to sort out this problem in the interest of public service.

"I think it's important for a group like this, as we come up to an election, regardless of your party affiliation, to think about how do we redesign our systems so that we don't have 50% or 55% voter participation on presidential elections. And during off-year congressional elections, you've got 39% or 40% voting," he said.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Hacking an election: The biggest barrier that academics and special interest groups complain about is the potential for hijacking an election by hacking it. Because voting requires so much secrecy, opponents of digital voting insist that an entire election could be sabotaged or hijacked from the other side of the world without us ever finding out.

But proponents of online voting say that these concerns aren't legitimate — that a solution can be found, and that concerns about insecurity echo the narrative Republicans have been trying to advance for years without evidence: that voting is a system rife with fraud. The moderator brought up Texas, where President Obama was speaking, as a particularly reform-averse state.

"It's not insecure, it's done because the folks who are currently governing the good state of Texas aren't interested in having more people participate," Obama said on Friday.

Watch the full keynote at SXSW below: