Time for online voting?

      November 25, 2000

      Butterflies, punch cards and chads, oh my! Those were the cries heard across the
      land earlier this month, as our national election turned into a national nightmare. A
      nightmare, at least, for those people who worked their fingers to the bone down
      in the Sunshine State counting out punch cards and tabulating votes for Al Gore
      or George W. Bush.

      In this wired world where people can do all their holiday shopping with a few
      clicks of a computer mouse, one would think the most powerful nation on earth
      would be able to find a better way to elect its leader. And that helpful senior
      citizen who greets you at the polling station and looks your name up in that huge
      register before giving you your ballot, doesn't it seem she would be replaceable
      with some king of technological gizmo that would allow you to vote without
      leaving your house?

      Well, that senior citizen is not going anywhere -- not yet anyway. But Internet
      voting is making strides.

      `` Internet voting is not being looked into at this point,'' said Brian McNiff, a
      spokesman for the secretary of state's office. `` I think it's something that could
      happen in the future, but there are many problems with it that have to be looked

      Indeed, many observers cite huge -- possibly intractable -- problems with voting
      online, at least in the way the Internet currently works.

      Yet how can one question the security of voting online when in Florida they
      started accepting absentee ballots without postmarks? Or, consider Oregon,
      where voting is done via snail mail.

      That's what people like Jim Adler say. He's the founder and CEO of
      VoteHere.net which makes software for Internet voting. He says casting a ballot
      in cyberspace is as safe as doing it at the local polling station.

      `` With online voting you just wouldn't see the kinds of problems they're having in
      Florida,'' he said.

      At the very least, something needs to be done to increase voter participation.
      Turnout fell below 50 percent in the last presidential elec tion for the first time
      since 1924. Turnout has been even worse in non-presidential years, hitting a low
      of 36.1 percent in 1998.

      The ease of online voting could bring more people into the process, proponents
      say. Bill Taylor, vice president of Election.com, which offered online voting in
      Arizona's presidential primary this year, said voting increased 600 percent there.

      More about all that later. Right now, it's time for a look at where we are and how
      we got here:

      Voting methods take a long time to change. Author John Steele Gordon recently
      postulated in the Wall Street Journal that since the electoral process is
      monopolistic it is free from market forces, including the rush to embrace
      technology. And where progress doesn't bring dividends, you find inertia.

      History bears this out.

      The paper ballot was used to elect George Washington, and hung around for
      another century, despite growing concerns about fraud.

      It wasn't until the 1890s that machines were introduced to the voting public.
      Those primitive contraptions allowed voters to pull a lever for their choice of
      candidate. Still, even though these machines helped combat voter fraud, it took
      three decades for them to widely replace the old paper ballot.

      The late 1960s saw the advent of the punch card system, which counted up the
      votes more quickly, but, as this election has shown, has some problems serious
      enough to help Pat Buchanan seem like a good choice to thousands of Jewish
      voters in south Florida.

      Massachusetts had its own bout with the punch card. In 1996's 10th
      Congressional District Democratic primary, Philip W. Johnston initially won the
      contest by 266 votes. A recount lowered the margin to 175 votes, before his
      opponent, William D. Delahunt, filed a lawsuit.

      A superior court judge reviewed nearly 1,000 punch card ballots and ended up
      declaring Delahunt the winner by 108 votes. Delahunt went on to win the general
      election in November.

      That style of punch card was outlawed in Massachusetts after that, and only 2
      percent of precincts statewide still use them.

      This area now uses paper ballots and optical scanners.

      The melee in Florida may have a profound effect on the way we vote, according
      to some observers.

      `` I would think you'd have two sort of contradictory effects,'' McNiff said. ``
      One would be `Yes, we want to avoid a repetition of what happened this year,'
      which would benefit any system other than punch cards. But conversely any new
      proposal will face far more scrutiny than it ever would have pre-Florida. People
      are more aware now that any voting system can have flaws.''

      But the burning question in some quarters of the electorate is this: will we ever be
      able to stay home and vote in our pajamas?

      It will take the Internet to bring about such a revolution. And, it seems, the first
      shots have already been fired, with pilot programs being run by three different
      online voting companies all over California and in Louisiana.

      Also, several legislatures are also considering allowing computer voting in
      statewide elections. A pilot Pentagon program will allow residents of Florida,
      Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah who are living abroad to vote over the
      Web next year.

      There's more ahead, says Bill Taylor. He cites the independent analyst The
      Gartner Group's prediction that online voting will be available in almost every
      state by 2004.

      Bill Adler of VoteHere.net said his company hopes to have on-site Internet voting
      in 40 states by next year.

      Yet there are roadblocks and many critics out there. For despite the progress
      Internet voting seems to have made, voting online seems to bring out the Luddite
      in people. The chief concerns of critics relate to security, confidentiality and ease
      of use.

      `` There are a million reasons why we don't want Internet voting,'' said Rebecca
      Mercuri, a professor at Bryn Mawr College who has studied the subject.

      There are two types of Internet voting. One is remote voting, which allows voters
      to log on from home on their personal computer, punch in their personal
      identification number, and then cast their e-ballot. Those without computers can
      go to a school or library to use one.

      Another method is on-site online voting, where voters go to the local polling
      station and instead of filling out a ballot use an ATM-like machine to cast their

      Both methods provide a confirmation screen that comes up once the vote has
      been cast, asking the voter to confirm his or her selections before finalizing the
      vote. Had this been available in Florida, millions of Americans would have been
      spared learning the word `` chad.''

      The trick to either form of online voting is how do you provide the anonymity and
      the trackability necessary when a voter casts a ballot? The former is a
      requirement of the Constitution; the latter is necessary in case of a recount.

      Current Internet voting systems encrypt the vote as it is cast and it is stored in that
      form until the end of the election. Once the election is over the identity of the
      voter -- still encrypted -- is stored in one database, and the vote goes into
      another one.

      `` We have no way to track the identity of the voter to their vote,'' Taylor said.

      Others disagree, however. Mercuri says the type of encryption used by online
      voting companies is `` weak'' and does not meet international standards. (The
      company spokesmen say there are many different standards and that they already
      meet the highest ones available.)

      If and when the sanctity of the vote is guaranteed, and an audit trail can be put in
      place, there's the huge problem of hackers. Hey, if Microsoft can be hacked,
      who's safe? say Internet voting's critics. Powerful fire walls and encryption may
      help keep some cyber creeps away, but Internet vandals have proven quite
      resourceful in recent years.

      Talk about stealing an election. It doesn't take much imagination to imagine the
      havoc a hacker could inflict on a national election database.

      Taylor said his company, which ran the Democratic primary in Arizona, provided
      the most security ever for an election.

      Another problem is one that can happen outside the PC. The `` digital divide'' it's
      called, and it is created by the Internet-access gap between rich and poor, whites
      and minorities, urban and rural residents.

      Which is why on-site, online voting will likely be the first method of Internet
      balloting to have a real chance at gaining acceptance.

      Ultimately, Florida will surely bring out some changes in our electoral system.
      Standardized ballots would seem to be a no-brainer; and more definitive rules on
      recounts a must.

      However, there's still the cost to contend with.

      `` It would be an added expense at the beginning,'' said Nancy Shaw,
      administrative secretary for the board of election commissions in North Attleboro.
      `` What you'd probably do is set up some computers around the town and have
      someone there to help the people. For a while you'd still have to have polls and
      poll workers, and gradually we could go wholly to it.''

      Then there's the winning over of the public, which isn't going to be easy, said
      Deborah Phillips, chairperson of The Voting Integrity Project in Arlington, Va.

      `` We've got a ways to go,'' she said. `` We're looking at the future in the next
      couple of years of conducting real experiments where the security of these things
      are really tested.''