An e-voting referendum

While millions of voters decide the futures of Al Gore and George W. Bush

on Nov. 7, a relative handful of voters in Arizona, California and at military

bases may decide the future of Internet voting.

Voters from a precinct near Phoenix, from four precincts in California

and from military bases in the United States and overseas will test Internet

voting for the first time in a presidential election. The test results could

lead to much more widespread Internet voting in 2002, said Alfie Charles,

chairman of California's Internet Voting Task Force.

In both Arizona and California, the tests won't involve voting from

home or work over personal computers — that's still years in the future,

said Yvonne Reed, spokeswoman for Maricopa County, Ariz.

For military voters, however, the future is here. About 350 military

personnel will be able to use computers in their homes, offices or at U.S.

embassies abroad to file encrypted ballots to election officials in five

states.

Only the military Internet votes will count; the Internet ballots in

Arizona and California are for test purposes only. When the 932 registered

voters of Maricopa County's Fern precinct go to their polling places, they

will vote on standard machines. Then they will be offered the chance to

try out a nonbinding ballot using a computer connected to the Internet.

County officials want to see how the public reacts to Internet voting,

Reed said. The Fern precinct was selected because it includes a mix of white,

Hispanic, black, American Indian and Asian voters, and households with a

mix of incomes and ages. In California, voters will be able to cast nonbinding

votes via the Internet in precincts in San Diego, Sacramento and two counties

near San Francisco.

Voting officials will analyze the security of votes cast over the Internet

and test voter comfort with Internet voting systems, Charles said.

Whether California voters will ever be able to vote from the home or

office "is still up in air," he said. But if the tests go well, using the

Internet in polling places where voting is closely monitored "will probably

happen within the next two years," Charles said.

For county officials who manage elections, the Internet promises to

cut costs by eliminating the expense of printing ballots. It can also save

time and money by making vote tabulation almost instantaneous, he said.

The cost of elections, which now runs $3 to $5 per voter, could be cut substantially.

In the short term, however, Internet voting is likely to cost more than

it saves, warned Doug Lewis, director of the Election Center, a Houston-based

organization that tracks developments in election technologies. Localities

will have to buy voting system servers and sophisticated routing systems

"with lots of redundancy to ensure people don't get disenfranchised," Lewis

said.

The prospects for using the Internet to transmit voting results from

polling places to a tabulating center look good, Lewis said. "But there

are some real serious issues" concerning vote security and integrity that

are likely to delay voting from the home or office, he added.

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