States test voting from your living room

Casting ballots by mail, Internet could boost turnout, but critics warnof fraud.

With a wink and a nod (and sometimes a little cash or the promise of a job at City Hall), politicos used to tell the party faithful to "vote early and often."

As officials around the nation sort out yesterday's elections, exactly when people should vote - and how to avoid fraud in the process - is getting new, cyberage scrutiny.

Here in Oregon, voters did not go to the neighborhood grade school or town hall to cast their ballots. Instead, they all did it by mail - and could have done so as early as 20 days ago when their voting slips were mailed out. In Iowa, voters tried out a new Internet voting system set up alongside traditional voting booths.

Around the country, such efforts are accelerating. Some 20 states now allow virtually unlimited use of absentee ballots. Lawmakers in Michigan and Ohio are considering legislation that would follow Oregon's lead and make all voting by mail. A "virtual voting system" using computers has been tested in several Washington counties in recent elections, as well as in university and public-school elections. Officials in California, Florida, and Minnesota are studying the possibility of online voting.

The idea here is to increase voter turnout, which has continued to decline. Last year for example - a year when congressional elections were held - just 36 percent of America's voting-age population went to the polls, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institution. This meant that nearly 120 million potential voters failed to exercise their democratic right.

By contrast, Oregon - with its all-mail vote - saw 58 percent of registered voters participate in the 1996 presidential primaries. In New Hampshire, which draws far more national attention, the turnout was a noticeably lower 44 percent.

Such figures would seem to argue for getting rid of the ritual of leaving home on a particular day as the only way to vote. But this trend toward eliminating traditional means of voting has raised warning signs as well.

"One of the principal problems with election integrity today - the large number of unqualified and fraudulently registered names on voter registration records - would not be addressed by any of the current Internet voting models," warns the Voting Integrity Project, a private organization in Arlington, Va., that investigates vote fraud."

Ballot-box thieves

In fact, when vote thieves can avoid in-person voting, they can more easily avoid detection and more easily commit fraud, warned the organization recently. "This is why absentee ballot fraud is the current method of choice for stolen elections. Internet voting may offer similar opportunities for vote thieves...."

"You've got to make sure voters are actual voters and the tabulation was accurate, and that provisional ballots are reconciled with any Internet ballots," agrees Jim Adler, president of Vote, a company in Kirkland, Wash., that has tested its "virtual voting system" in several Washington counties as well as at 15 high schools in Virginia.

In Oregon, where universal mail-in ballots have been available for several election cycles and where voters overwhelmingly approved a mail-only voting measure last year, authorities report very little evidence of abuse. And, they say, the state saves millions of dollars in the process.

Still, there have been recent cases of vote fraud involving absentee ballots in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Georgia - one reason the Voting Integrity Project has brought suit in federal court to stop vote-by-mail here. The organization argues that a 1872 federal law requires that elections be set for a certain day.

A federal district judge disagreed, and the case is now being heard by the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Oregon asserts that election day is "the date voting stops and vote tallying begins," as state solicitor general Michael Reynolds puts it. The case is expected to reach the US Supreme Court.

Are Americans interested in casting ballots over the Internet?

A recent poll by Dell Computer Corp. found that of those who accessed the Internet at least once a week, 78 percent would like to vote online. "Internet voting has the potential to expand our traditional definition and understanding of the American town square," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

But there are drawbacks

Some observers worry that a trend in this direction could disenfranchise poor people or others not tuned in to cyberspace. Voting early (as is possible with mail ballots) precludes the possibility of changing one's mind if some late event - scandal involving a candidate, for example - occurs. Others say the experience of gathering to vote on a particular day - an important aspect of participatory democracy - would be lost.

"The question is what do you gain in return," says Mr. Adler. "Younger voters are completely disenfranchised. There are not many political institutions that resonate with their lifestyles. They may get involved in the process, and they are the future of the electorate and the leadership.... We're trading off that poll-site experience for a more enfranchised voting group - that's a reasonable tradeoff to make."

It may be reasonable in theory, others argue, but - like online commerce and the privacy of communications - it also involves important unresolved questions about security online.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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