This analysis glosses over a few variables, like the manufacture, maintenance, and transport of the scanner and touch-screen computer. Unfortunately, the Lantern is hamstrung by a lack of information. Manufacturers of voting machines do not like talking to the media—even if you’re asking for basic environmental data rather than accusing them of security flaws. And they certainly have not subjected their products to comprehensive life-cycle analyses. If anything, the unconsidered variables might tip the balance slightly in favor of the paper ballots, since each optical scanner can service more voters than the touch screen. Without better information, however, this one remains too close to call.
But when it comes to the climate impacts of voting, there’s a third candidate to consider. In the 2010 midterms, 33 states allowed members of the military and citizens living overseas to cast their ballots via the Internet. If that system were offered universally, it would certainly be superior to both in-person and mail-in voting, from an environmental perspective. Assuming it would take about five minutes to vote on a desktop, each vote would account for just 0.02 pounds of carbon dioxide. The entire voting process would therefore account for less greenhouse gas emissions than even the manufacture of a paper ballot. Plus, younger people—to the extent they bother to vote at all—would be likely to vote on their smartphones, which are far more energy-efficient than a clunky old desktop.
Internet voting is still a long way off, though. The experts the Lantern consulted emphasized that security systems aren’t sufficiently robust or well-studied to take a presidential election completely online. Any potential failures would result in protracted legal battles, anyway, and the atmosphere surely wouldn’t benefit from armies of lawyers crisscrossing the country to plead their clients’ cases.
Still, taking elections online is worthwhile goal over the long term. In the 2008 presidential election, more than 125 million people voted. If everyone one of them generated two pounds of greenhouse gas traveling to and from the polling place, the transport-related emissions alone from the election would have approached the annual emissions of some small countries like Comoros or Dominica. That’s no excuse to sit out the vote, of course. You can always walk, run, or bike to the polling place.
The Green Lantern thanks Alexander Shvartsman of the University of Connecticut and Dan Wallach of Rice University.