Can the Net revive the vote?
- By William Matthews
- Sep 04, 2000
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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,"
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
"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,
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.