Cyber-Voting, Version 1.0

Problems at the ballot box in the 2000 presidential election prompted the beginning of a needed overhaul of voting procedures. That overhaul, while far from complete (some 22 states still use punch-card ballots), saw at least some states switch to touch-screen computer voting in 2002.

Now, a limited number of military personnel and some other voters overseas are being offered the opportunity to vote via the Internet - an experiment that could lead to mouse-driven balloting for everyone.

But wait. A review of the Pentagon's experimental Internet-voting system released last week found myriad problems. Four of 10 outside experts hired by the Defense Department said the current system could too easily be cracked, hacked, or invaded by a digital virus, and called for a stop to the $22 million project.

While the military should proceed with caution, it's right not to cease their Web-voting effort on the basis of this minority report.

Innovations usually require some techno-tightening, and the advances often are for the better once the kinks are worked out.

In fact, the Pentagon's system, called "Serve," (for Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment) will be used in this year's presidential primaries. Seven states have agreed to participate, and about 100,000 voters are expected to try it.

Voters will be given an electronic certificate for both ID and authentication to use the system to register and vote. Their encrypted ballots can be decoded only by local election officials. Voters also can verify that the officials actually received their ballots.

True, the Internet still can be sabotaged (reminder: plain old ballot boxes were sabotaged in their day, too). But thanks to aggressive marketing campaigns by banks and others, consumers today are much more aware of identity theft, and better follow instructions, and take necessary precautions when online.

This year's holiday uptick in online Internet sales, consumer interest in e-banking, online auctions, and travel bookings are just a few examples that show the public's willingness to use the Web to transmit private information. Security enhancements also help reduce public concern.

Of course, the possibility of a security breach must be weighed against the many benefits of Internet voting. Web voting better avoids weather problems. Those with limited mobility would have less difficulty getting to the polls. The 6 million eligible voters living abroad would have fast access to a virtual polling place.

The ease of a secure Internet voting system could eventually bring more voters into the democratic process, even though "the digital divide remains a huge issue," says Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org. While low-income voters are far less likely to be computer literate, he notes the Pentagon's effort remains "a vital link in the chain toward full Internet voting."

Given the legacy of Florida 2000, a great deal of caution is warranted regarding Internet voting, as well as other ballot-box enhancements. But to stop such advances in their tracks is a mistake.

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