Power panel discusses ins and outs of e-elections

The "if" is history. The only question with Internet voting is how and when.

That's what a panel of skeptical academics, cheerleading industry leaders and enthusiastic elected officials agreed on when they met Jan. 20 at The Brookings Institution to discuss the issues involved with casting election ballots online.

"This will happen with or without us," said John Chambers, president of Cisco Systems Inc., an Internet networking company. "Political Webmasters will soon have as much to do with elections as pollsters and media advisers."

The discussion comes on the cusp of major online voting experiments. Next week, certain voting districts in Alaska will vote online in a Republican primary straw poll. In March, Arizona Democrats will participate in the first binding Internet vote during their primary. And soldiers stationed overseas will cast online ballots in the November presidential election.

But as inevitable as online voting seems, serious issues such as privacy, security and accessibility are holding it back, panelists said.

David Mason, commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, said it's critical that voters be able to trust the integrity of the online voting system.

"Unlike a commercial transaction where if something goes wrong you can fix it, you can't undo elections," Mason said. "The cost of making a mistake here is a lot greater."

Jim Adler, founder of VoteHere.net, a company that sells Internet voting technology, said the nuts and bolts exist right now to make voting secure while protecting people's privacy. Voters will come to believe in the system once they try it, he said.

"We want to make this real, and we can only make it real by letting people kick tires," Adler said.

Both New York Gov. George Pataki and Calif. Gov. Gray Davis, known for their passionate pursuits to make their governments as electronic as possible, were clearly enchanted by the prospect of re-energizing voters via the Internet.

"This is a chance to engage people," said Pataki.

Not everyone was so sure.

Mason said the Internet alone won't make people want to vote.

"If all we're doing on the Internet is giving people another opportunity to vote, you can predict it's not going to work," Mason said. "If the definition of working is getting more people to vote."

And Anthony Corrado, an associate professor of government at Colby College, pointed out the unfortunate overlap between the people least likely to vote and those not using the Internet — poor and minorities.

"The bigger problem is going to be behavioral," Corrado said. "We keep trying to make it easier and easier for people to cast ballots, and what we've found is participation has continued to decline. Can this technology change behavior?''

With young people, it could, Adler said.

"Our political institutions don't resonate with youth, but the Internet really does," he said.

Both governors agreed the Internet will converge with elections slowly and subtly. At first, people won't be voting from home in their pajamas. They'll likely have the option of using a computer instead of a traditional voting machine when they go to their polling places.

That way those without access to computers won't be disenfranchised from the process, panelists agreed.

"Everybody is not computer savvy and everybody doesn't have a computer at home," said Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, president of the League of Women Voters. "We need to train people. We need to make sure there's not this digital divide. Let's not jump into this Internet voting without bringing everyone along with us."

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