Internet voting gains new appeal
- By William Matthews
- Dec 10, 2000
The paper ballot bedlam afflicting Florida is prompting election and elected
officials from Connecticut to California to look anew at electronic voting.
In Florida, state and local officials predict the days of the notorious
punch card are over. But they wonder where the 25 counties that still use
punch card voting will get "tens of millions of dollars" needed to buy electronic
replacements. State Rep. Bill Andrews, a Delray Beach Republican, suggested
that Congress put up the cash — and federal lawmakers seem eager to help.
During the first week of December, U.S. House and Senate members offered
at least three plans for studying new voting technology, developing new
voting machine standards and making grants to states and localities to buy
new voting systems.
"The first election of the 21st century unfortunately has demonstrated
that many of our nation's voting systems are stuck somewhere in the mid-1900s,"
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Dec. 5.
Four weeks after the Nov. 7 presidential election, with results still
unsettled because of contested Florida ballots, McConnell and Sen. Robert
Torricelli (D-N.J.) proposed creating a permanent Election Administration
Commission to set election standards that include voting machine technology.
The commission would provide up to $100 million a year to states and localities
to improve voting systems.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for vendors" of election equipment,
said Deborah Phillips, director of the Virginia-based Voting Integrity
Project. Since the presidential election dispute erupted, companies have
been aggressively marketing hack-proof Internet voting systems, foolproof
touch-screen voting machines and various electronic security systems for
voting. But "there's no such thing as perfect voting technology," Phillips
said. "There is going to be tremendous attractiveness to try to find a one-size-fits-all
solution to the problems we have been witnessing. It doesn't exist."
Two voting systems are the center of attention: Internet systems and
direct recording electronic (DRE) machines.
The appeal of Internet voting is that it ultimately may let voters cast
ballots from their home or work computers. But there are major technical
problems to overcome to get there, said Lorrie Cranor, a voting technology
expert at AT&T Labs' Secure Systems Research department.
verifying voter identification, defeating denial-of-service attacks, guaranteeing
voter privacy and finding ways to prevent "Trojan horse" virus attacks that
could change election results without being detected, she said.
A San Rafael, Calif., company, Safevote Inc., said it has solved most
of those problems. In a mock election held Oct. 30 to Nov. 3 in Contra Costa
County, near San Francisco, Safevote invited hackers to break into its system
and reported that the attacks failed. The company used "digital vote certificates"
to positively identify voters, but did not link names to ballots, preserving
Voted ballots were encrypted for privacy, and the system can be set
to record votes on CD-ROM, microfilm or even on paper to create a vote audit
trail, said Eva Waskell, Safevote communications director.
Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in
Maryland, remains skeptical. "Internet voting [will] be there eventually,"
he said. "But the practical reality is that there are still a lot of issues
to be worked out."
Hugh Denton, a Contra Costa County election official, said the county was
pleased with Safevote's Internet voting experiment. However, "we're not
anxious to make a quick jump" to new technology, he said. His county is
satisfied with the current system — paper ballots that are marked by special
pens and read by optical scanners, he said.
The second technology under scrutiny, DRE voting machines, includes
touch-screen machines that enable voters to cast ballots by pressing the
names of the candidates they prefer. Some DRE machines use keys and are
similar to automated teller machines.
DRE machines tend to be expensive — around $15,000 each — but eSlate
3000, a new version developed by Hart InterCivic, has a base price of about
$2,500 per machine.
The machines allow voters to vote out of their precinct. In Texas, for example,
voters can cast ballots in supermarkets, said Bill Stotesbery, the company's
vice president of marketing.
DRE machines often are criticized for lacking paper ballots that can
be reviewed in case of a dispute, but the Hart InterCivic system can create
electronic images of each ballot to serve as an audit trail, Stotesbery
"With electronic systems, you have less opportunity for ballot tampering,"
he said. "The vote goes directly from voter's hand to tabulation point.
There is no paper to be lost."