Balloting by Internet might beat poking a hole in paper

The process by which Americans elect a president has probably never received more attention than in the past two weeks. Cries for change and for a mandatory federal ballot for all states have already arisen. The other result of this ballot brouhaha is that organizations and states that have been looking into the issue of online voting may find their work suddenly warrants much more attention.

The secretaries of State for California and Arizona and the Internet Policy Institute have released studies this year about Internet voting that show that while some problems do exist, regular voting on the Internet will probably be a fact of life within five to 10 years.

In 1999, Bill Jones, the California secretary of State, got the three groups of people interested in Internet voting to meet and talk. These three groups - state election officials, computer specialists, and social scientists - ultimately produced a paper, published in January, called "A Report on the Feasibility of Internet Voting" (www.ss.ca.gov/executive/-ivote/toc.htm).

While taking into account technical, security and access problems, the report notes that "it is technologically possible to utilize the Internet to develop an additional method of voting that would at least be as secure from vote-tampering as the current absentee ballot process in California."

The report suggests that Internet voting be phased in. First, Internet voting machines could be set up in traditional polling places under the control of election personnel. The second phase would be publicly accessible Internet voting kiosks, located in libraries, etc. The third phase would be allowing people to vote using any machine with Internet access.

Pilot projects are already under way. Both California and Arizona conducted nonbinding online voting tests in several counties during the Nov. 7 elections. VoteHere.Net, a Bellevue, Wash., company that calls itself "the leading provider of secure Internet voting," and Compaq, the computer company, ran the tests. Both states are now in the process of getting feedback from people who participated. (You can view the results of the online voting tests at www.VoteHere.net.)

While Internet voting may seem like an idea whose time has come, the real drawback is social: Not everybody has access to computers. This is particularly true of people who live in poor or rural communities. Many states will not allow state or local officials to change voting procedures if all citizens cannot be guaranteed equal access to the new methods.

The Internet Policy Institute's recent paper on "The Internet and the Future of Democratic Governance," authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R) of Virginia (www.internetpolicy.org), provides some good statistics about the potential digital divide that exists between different segments of society. But that doesn't deter the two men from seeing the potential benefits.

"Internet voting would likely make it far easier for many people who suffer from disabilities or serious illnesses to vote, as well as many Americans who have to juggle extraordinarily busy work and home lives," the authors wrote. "So long as the existence of Internet voting does not reduce access to traditional polling places, providing an additional voting option that makes it easier for such people to vote will quite likely provide a net benefit for society."

If the bizarre voting methods of Florida counties do anything, they might help us realize that new technologies, including the Internet, provide us a much better way to cast a secure, safe vote than poking a hole in a piece of paper.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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