In the Running
By Doug Brown, Interactive Week
November 22, 2000 7:59 AM PT

While voters may never know the true count in Florida, the election fiasco demonstrated one thing vividly: It's time to make changes to the balkanized and largely antiquated system of voting in the U.S.

As attorneys in Florida argued about dimpled and pregnant chads, Palm Beach County residents agonized about mistakenly voting for Pat Buchanan and election officials revealed thousands of votes would not be counted for various reasons, people in the online election business gloated. With Florida drawing attention to the nuts and bolts of voting, the Internet is bound to cut a high profile in debates over how to improve the system.

But as with all things political, the Internet's role is already subject to controversy.

Proponents of online voting described the technology as ready for prime time. They heralded it as a solution to the many voting problems that have remained largely hidden to the public, but which were starkly revealed in the presidential race.

But critics said issues of privacy, security and authentication, among others, have not yet been adequately addressed by online voting technologies. They fear the Florida situation will spark a panicked rush to flawed systems that "would make Florida look like a sunny walk in the park," said Lauren Weinstein, a computer scientist and co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility. He called the notion of using a Web browser in any stage of the voting process "asinine," noting that "the scenario of hackers disrupting a vote is a very real one."

Any system connected to the Internet could get infected with hidden code that would subtly alter vote tallies, said Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist at Bryn Mawr College who last month successfully defended her University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. thesis, titled Electronic Vote Tabulation Checks and Balances.

"We can only eradicate viruses after we know they are there," Mercuri said, adding that electronic voting methods of any sort are inferior to traditional voting methods because they replace paper ballots with bits and bytes. Florida, she said, has shown the importance of audit trails. In contemporary electronic systems, legitimate recounts are impossible because digital ballots are invisible and too easily corrupted.

Nevertheless, Mercuri presumes Internet voting eventually will become a reality, even though complaints over traditional voting technologies have been largely ignored by public officials for more than a decade.

Last year, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) agreed to perform a study of electronic voting systems , but Congress opted against paying for the study. In 1988, the National Institute of Standards and Technology recommended simple steps that local election boards could take to improve their voting systems. But few states, Mercuri said, adopted the full slate of recommendations, one of which was to install at polling places "card readers" machines that could read a ballot to see if any races were missing votes or to discover if any races received more than the allotted number of votes. If mistakes were made, voters could get a new ballot and vote again.

The voting technologies industry revolves around three basic technologies: punch card systems, which read holes in paper ballots, were introduced in the 1890 census and first used in an election in 1964; optical scanner technologies, which read marks on paper; and direct recording equipment, electronic systems that resemble automated teller machines and use "touch-screens" to mark votes. Those ATM-like systems are slowly being introduced around the country.

Though presidential and congressional elections are for federal offices, the federal government has little say over the voting process. Elections are run by counties, which feed into state election bureaucracies. Voting technologies are chosen by state election officials. Counties then choose from the list of approved vendors.

To date, no federal regu lations set minimum standards for election technologies. That may change, said Washington, D.C., attorney Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman. "You can see that after this, a federal standard would be adopted, and it would require proof of low error rates," he said. "That would have the effect of excluding punch cards."

Most officials have had little impetus to buy modern electronic voting equipment because, for one, the ATM-style systems are expensive, Potter said. "You don't rush out and spend a couple of million dollars on voting machines" when you are a locality dealing with overcrowded schools, roads that need fixing, and police and fire departments in need of increased financial support, he said.

Internet voting is comparatively cheap, and price may be one factor encouraging public officials to consider the technology, Potter believes.

No states have yet sanctioned online voting technologies, but many may soon approve select systems, said Jim Adler, founder of VoteHere. The company has done pilot elections in 10 states, including Arizona and California. Adler predicted his system will be approved in 40 states by next year; such systems will likely still require people to head to polling places rather than vote from home.

Bill Taylor, vice president for strategic development at Election.com, which conducts online elections for clients, said the true value of Internet voting won't be realized until people can vote from wherever they can log on. "You aren't accomplishing much if you have to go to the polling place," he said.

Internet voting will take four to eight years to become a reality in any public election, predicted Bill Stopesbery, vice president of marketing at Hart Intercivic, which builds ATM-style electronic voting machines, but does not yet have an Internet voting product. While Stopesbery believes the presidential election will accelerate the demand for online voting, "no one is going to be able to broadly adopt a system until security, privacy and reliability is absolutely established."

One thing is certain, said Michael Cornfield, a professor of politics at George Washington University: "We all have to go back to the drawing board after this."

And that leaves the fate of chads the bits of paper on punch ballots that must be punched through for a vote to be counted up in the air.