Over the past several years, the Internet has begun remaking key aspects of American life: communication, information, banking, and commerce.
It is now poised to start nibbling away at the way citizens govern themselves, too.
Arizona, in a first for the nation, plans to allow voters in its Democratic presidential primary March 11 to cast ballots on the Internet. Democrats will be permitted to vote online from home, work, or at traditional polling stations. While the issues involved in spreading Web voting are too complex to predict rapid growth of such ballots, the Arizona move is seen as a pacesetter that could galvanize fast action elsewhere.
Indeed, last Friday the White House announced the launch of a National Science Foundation study assessing Internet voting for the nation as a whole.
Explaining the Arizona decision, state Democratic Party chairman Mark Fleisher says, "We want to make voting fun, easy, and exciting."
While no one knows how competitive the nomination race will be by March, the online vote already has historic significance.
"I think it breaks the logjam psychologically," says Marc Strassman, an official with Votation.com, a Web company dedicated to building the technology used with electronic voting.
To date, a number of private organizations, such as the Sierra Club and the American Bar Association, have conducted internal elections online. Some government jurisdictions in Washington state have tested online balloting, and the US military has tested some online voting systems for soldiers posted overseas.
In California, a statewide task force charged with studying Web voting will issue its report next month, a step that could pave the way for tests around the state.
Kim Alexander, a member of that task force, says the Internet is undoubtedly changing politics - with everything from candidate Web sites to a rich array of finance data now posted online and available to anyone with a modem. Ms. Alexander's California Voter Foundation has begun publishing "digital sunlight" awards to states it regards as leaders in that effort. Winners for 1999 were: Illinois, New York, Michigan, Hawaii, Louisiana, Virginia, and California.
But Alexander also says the security and privacy concerns of Internet voting are considerable and by no means resolved. She asks, is it proper to cast ballots from work where the employer has a right to all e-mail sent from company computers?
Those concerns aside, some in California are eager to move ahead rapidly. Warren Slocum, clerk for San Mateo County, which contains large chunks of Silicon Valley, says he hopes Internet voting will be possible in his county by election time next November.
Most analysts expect online voting to appear first in traditional polling stations, where security is more manageable. Electronic, as opposed to manual, voting is already commonplace in some jurisdictions.
But that is seen as only a first step to the eventual opening up of online voting from home, work, and perhaps other places like shopping malls. Such voting might increase turnout among people from 18 to 34, an age group where civic participation is lower than previous generations.
Online voting could advance quickly in California if advocates succeed in passing an initiative that has been submitted to the state attorney general's office for inclusion on next November's ballot. It would legalize registration and voting in cyberspace, as well as mandate that all counties provide both. No one expects paper ballots to disappear, just to be augmented by online voting.
This movement toward cyberspace disturbs some. The Washington-based Voting Integrity Project is considering legal action to stop the Arizona move. Critics of online voting say viruses and hacking threaten security needed for Web voting, and that the integrity of the voting process would deteriorate online.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society