Can the Net revive the vote?

In Arizona in the spring of 1996, encountering a voting Democrat was about

as likely as finding a snowball in the desert. Of 843,000 registered Democrats,

only 12,800 voted in the 1996 Democratic primary. In a state where the governor,

both senators and five out of six House members are Republicans — and registered

Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-1 — it's easy to see why Democrats

might get discouraged.

State Democratic leaders anxious to reinvigorate their party concluded

that they had to make voting "more convenient and easier," said party executive

director Cortland Coleman. So for this year's primary, they turned to the

Internet.

Arizona's Democratic primary in March became the nation's first binding

election conducted in part via the Internet. During a four-day period, voters

cast ballots from computers at home, work, libraries, schools, community

centers, Indian reservations and polling places.

Voting among Democrats shot up by a factor of more than six — about 86,000

cast ballots. Of those, 36,000 opted to vote from computers via the Internet.

Another 32,000 sent in absentee ballots by mail, and 18,000 Democrats traveled

to polling places to vote the traditional way.

For Coleman, the election was a rousing success, and he credits Internet

voting. The convenience of online voting holds a promise of reversing the

decades-long decline in voting in the United States. But those most familiar

with the mechanics of elections advise election officials to go slowly.

Issues ranging from ballot security to voter privacy to accurate vote tabulation

still must be resolved. This won't happen soon.

Proponents say online voting would permit people to vote from their

homes or workplaces when polling places might be inconvenient. Patients

could vote from hospitals, military personnel could vote from overseas locations,

and business travelers and others could vote from distant locations as long

as they have access to the Internet. And it might attract 18-to-25-year-olds,

who tend to be Internet-savvy but politically indifferent.

Bill Taylor, a senior vice president at election.com, the Internet company

that managed the online part of the Arizona Democratic primary, said Internet

voting could give rise to a sort of New Age, laid-back democracy. After

the election, he and colleagues recounted stories about families "who voted

at home together," a couple who invited friends in "to share a cup of coffee

and cast their vote online," and the president of the Navajo Nation, who

voted online from Window Rock, the Navajo capital.

But to many election experts, the Arizona primary highlighted Internet voting's

pitfalls as much as its potential.

"People had major problems with how the Democratic primary was run,"

said Penelope Bonsall of the Federal Election Commission's Office of Election

Administration.

Troubles ranged from the inability of most Macintosh computers and some

older PCs to link to election.com's voting Web site, to lack of privacy

assurances for voters, to a legal challenge to the election on grounds that

Internet voting discriminated against those who lack Internet access.

The FEC does not oppose voting via the Internet, Bonsall said. The agency

"is completely neutral" on the technology but is a strict proponent of

standards that ensure the integrity of the voting process. And on that front,

Internet voting raises many questions.

Election integrity means that the voting process must be tamper-proof

so that votes cannot be changed after they have been cast; must have some

way of ensuring voters' identities and that they are not using another person's

name or identification number to vote; must allow ballots to be cast privately

so voters cannot be coerced; must ensure that voters are able to vote only

once; and must have some way to reliably recount votes if the results are

challenged.

The FEC, which has developed standards for other voting systems, attempted

to develop standards for online voting, "but we came to the very stark conclusion

that there's no way to ensure privacy and security," Bonsall said.

A study by the California Internet Voting Task Force came to a similar

conclusion earlier this year. "Technological threats to the security, integrity

and secrecy of Internet ballots are significant," the task force reported.

Dangers range from sophisticated Trojan horse software attacks that could

secretly change or divert votes cast from home or office computers to viruses

that could shut down computer voting systems to power failures.

"Additional technical innovations are necessary" before voting from

home or office computers can be considered, the task force concluded. But

current technology may be good enough to permit Internet voting from polling

places.

Thurston County, Wash., tested Internet voting in February with a nonbinding

Internet election held at the same time as the state's Feb. 29 primary.

The county, which includes Tacoma and the state capital, Olympia, is

comfortable with information technology. "There is a rising public expectation

that we will be voting on the Internet in binding elections in upcoming

years," said election manager Kimberley Wyman.

In 1993, the county began to experiment with voting by mail to enhance convenience

and increase participation. It has become the county's most popular method

of voting, Wyman said. "In the past three elections, over 75 percent of

the ballots came through the mail," she said.

Acceptance of voting from home by mail makes the idea of voting from home

via the Internet almost a natural next step.

For the February test, the county issued voters 10-digit personal identification

numbers. Once on the Web site, they had to supply names, addresses and county

voter identification numbers as further proof of identity. In a genuine

election, additional security steps would probably be taken, Wyman said.

Voters could cast ballots via the Internet during an 18-day period that

ended on election day. In addition to voting from home, from work or from

other "remote computers," voters could also cast ballots online at polling

places on election day.

During the test, 3,638 people voted over the Internet. According to Wyman,

91.5 percent said they would vote online again if that was an option. Ninety-three

percent said they felt comfortable with the accuracy and security of the

results. And 66 percent judged online voting easier than voting at the polls

or mailing in ballots.

The public may have loved it, but "most election officials are really

very skeptical" about Internet voting, Wyman said. "There are some really

big hurdles that must be overcome" before Internet voting can be permitted

on a wide scale in binding public elections, she said. Election fraud and

the digital divide are the main concerns.

Election Fraud

Imagine the outcome of a presidential election secretly altered by a

foreign government. Deborah Phillips, chairwoman of the Virginia-based Voting

Integrity Project, warns that Internet voting poses vast new opportunities

to corrupt elections. Perhaps the most frightening is the possibility of

election tampering.

"The Internet itself is not a secure environment, nor is it an "American'

environment," she wrote in a recent report titled "Is Internet Voting Safe?"

Half of the Internet's users are outside America, and among them are hostile

foreign governments already using it for terrorist and military purposes.

For them, "developing the ability to interfere with or manipulate the outcomes

of American elections would almost certainly become an attractive goal,"

she wrote.

Denial-of-service attacks and viruses could crash the election system

and prevent voters from voting. "But the real fear is the type of hacking

that could result in deliberately manipulated election outcomes," she wrote.

That could include Trojan horse programs that lie undetected in voting systems

and silently change votes as they are cast. Unlike credit card fraud, where

victims ultimately discover the crime upon receiving a bill, "an e-voter

would likely be unaware his vote was stolen," Phillips wrote.

But Internet voting fraud doesn't have to be high-tech at all.

Permitting voters to cast ballots from computers at home, work or other

places creates opportunities for vote coercion. Violation of ballot secrecy

and pressure to cast votes in a particular way could come from family members,

employers, union officials or anyone, Phillips wrote.

And time-honored methods of election fraud — such as duplicate registrations,

registering unqualified voters and voting using identifications and registrations

of those who have moved away or died — could be incorporated into Internet

voting.

"All those possibilities are there and are real," said Paul Craft, manager

of voter systems at the Florida Division of Elections. "But the fact that

risk exists does not mean Internet voting is impossible; it simply means

you have to address the risk." And companies in the Internet voting business

are addressing the risk, said Craft, who is studying the potential of Internet

voting in Florida.

To Coleman, the Arizona Democratic Party director, the threats posed

by Internet voting are being overstated. He said a higher degree of authentication

was required to cast a vote via the Internet than to vote in a polling location.

"We're committed to making the election process more secure than it

has ever been before," said election.com's Taylor. Indeed, during the election,

a national magazine tested security by hiring a computer expert to try to

hack into the election's Web site, Taylor said. The hacking attempt failed.

The Internet voting company VoteHere.net, which conducted the Thurston

County test, said its voting system blocked 101 attempts to vote more than

once. An audit trail created by VoteHere.net showed that attempts were

made to guess voter ID numbers and the special 10-digit numbers issued for

the election. But the company reported that none of the attempts succeeded.

VoteHere.net also used 1,024-bit encryption to protect the integrity

and secrecy of ballots. In a binding election, officials probably would

insist on stricter security measures, said county election manager Wyman.

Ideally, they would link voters' handwritten signatures or a biometric identifier

such as a voice print to a digital certificate that only voters can use

to digitally sign their ballots, she said.

On election day in Thurston County, reliability turned out to be more

troublesome than security. Two of the computers set up at polling places

crashed. Although service was restored, the outages served as a reminder

that there may be "problems that cannot be controlled by staff and of the

need for contingency plans for voting," Wyman said.

The Digital Divide

If Internet voting can be made foolproof, election officials will still

have to confront the digital divide. According to the Voting Integrity Project's

Phillips, Internet voting discriminates against those who lack computers

and Internet access. The group has filed a lawsuit charging that the Arizona

primary violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Phillips backs the discrimination claim with these statistics: 19 percent

of African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics have Internet access, compared

with 38 percent of caucasians. And caucasians are gaining Internet access

at a faster rate than minorities, she said.

But those are national statistics that do not apply well to Arizona Democrats,

said Northern Arizona University political science professor Fred Solop.

In a survey he conducted, Solop found that in Arizona, the electronic haves

and have-nots are more divided along lines of age and education. Older people

and those with less education are not as likely to have Internet access

as racial minorities.

That may become a significant finding in the lawsuit Phillips has filed

because the Voting Rights Act of 1965 addresses racial discrimination but

not discrimination by age or education, Solop said.

Election.com's Taylor dismisses the claim that Internet voting discriminates

against anyone. "We haven't restricted anyone from voting, we've just enabled

more people to vote."

And the company says Internet voting increased minority participation in

the primary. Compared with 1992 and 1996, voter turnout this spring increased

by more than 600 percent. In two predominantly Hispanic legislative districts,

turnout increased more than 800 percent and 1,000 percent respectively,

election.com reported.

According to Florida's Craft, the digital divide is an issue election

administrators must take seriously. But that should not preclude Internet

voting, he said.

One version of Internet voting that especially interests Florida officials

involves voting via the Internet from polling places. The benefit is that

voters could vote from any polling place, making it easier for working people

to vote and easier for election officials to oversee the process.

In the long term, Florida might also be interested in limited voting

from home to make it easier for sick, elderly and disabled people to vote.

Thurston County sees more general support for online voting as an option,

Wyman said. And as people conduct more business online, the demand for Internet

voting is likely to grow.

But ultimate acceptance depends on convincing election officials that Internet

voting is at least as safe from tampering as traditional methods of voting.

"The Internet is in its relative infancy. It is anyone's guess what the

next-generation election system will look like," Wyman said.

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