Business & Technology
Finding profit in chad
Companies look for a surge in electronic voting
Joshua Kurlantzick

U.S. News & World Report
Page 45
(Copyright 2001)

Jim Adler knows about timing. The president of VoteHere, a supplier of electronic voting systems, he has been developing E- voting services for over four years. But in the wake of 2000's fiasco, electoral reform bills are on the agenda in nearly every state--Katherine Harris last week recommended that Florida spend $200 million to adopt E-voting--and Adler's company is a hot property. Cisco Systems and Compaq together have given VoteHere $10 million.

Electronic voting, via the Internet or at polling booth computer screens that resemble bank ATMs, suddenly has a powerful appeal. Instead of chads and counting machines, think of servers instantly catching overvotes. "When Americans use better technology to get cash on every street corner than they use to elect the leader . . . it's time to take action," said New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli, who coauthored an electoral reform bill.

Like Torricelli, many politicians hope E-voting will improve accuracy in vote-counting. Electronic voting--especially Internet voting--also might boost turnout. In 2000, Arizona voted for Democratic presidential candidates over the Internet, and 77,000 people turned out, compared with 12,000 in the previous primary.

E-voting's appeal has lured the big boys. In addition to VoteHere's deal, Unisys and Dell are developing E-voting systems. "This is potentially a sizable business," Adler says. Some economists estimate that state and local governments will spend as much as $9 billion to upgrade their polling technology.

Yet many computer experts are not enthusiastic. "Government services online have low privacy standards, but E-voting would pose a greater privacy risk," says Rebecca Mercuri, lecturer in computer science at Bryn Mawr College. Mercuri notes that no E-voting system has been certified as complying with government security standards.

Adler acknowledges these complaints but insists VoteHere's technology is secure. "It will take time to create the familiarity with E-voting that quells concerns," he says.

No paper trail. E-voting has other drawbacks. Electronic balloting systems without printouts make it harder to check results, Mercuri says. In one infamous example, St. Petersburg, Fla., used computerized counting in a mayoral election. A tabulation mistake, caused either by computer error or by human fraud, gave 1,429 extra votes to the incumbent, who won by 1,425. Without a paper trail, mistakes could not be analyzed.

What's more, E-voting could create demographic divides. Older, less technology-literate people might be less willing to vote, warns House Majority Leader Dick Armey, one of Congress's experts on E- government. A 1999 poll found only 19 percent of Americans over 65 would support Internet voting.

Despite these concerns, E-voting appears to be a go: At a recent trade show, members of Congress cooed over new voting systems. Will the systems really be revolutionary--and profitable? "Undoubtedly," Adler says. Will they work? "They could lead to a fiasco that will make Florida look minor," says Mercuri.