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Hurtling Toward Cyber-Elections

As political scientist Larry Sabato remarked recently, "The real revolution will be when we have Internet voting." 6 In the United States, the first real move to authorize Internet voting was a law Texas passed in order to enable U.S. astronaut David Wolf, serving on the Russian Space Station Mir, to vote via e-mail ballot in Texas' elections in 1997. 7 This event was unique not only because of the special circumstances, but also because it proceeded absent any real public policy debate on the wisdom and readiness of Internet voting.

After surveying Internet users, a group called ActivMedia concluded that two-thirds of users would like to cast votes via the Internet. ActivMedia determined that experienced Internet users were the most likely to favor on-line voting and senior citizens the most reluctant. 8 Despite pro-internet reports such as this, a study by Pew Research Center said that in 1998 the number of Americans using the Internet to access any election-related news site -- a 50% increase from two years earlier -- was still only 6% of the general population. 9 And a recent Commerce Department report cautioned that 67% of Americans still do not use the Internet, and even the 38% of households with personal computers do not have internet connections. 10 Nevertheless, no one disputes the Internet's impact on how business is being conducted, nor the potential the Internet represents. 11

The Republican Party of Louisiana contemplated conducting its presidential primary on-line in an effort to boost turnout from the 5% presidential caucus showing in 1996. One scenario for implementation envisioned designating "block hosts" willing to open their homes as balloting sites. At this point, however, turmoil in the party has stalled the proposal. 12 Should such a proposal be revived, in Louisiana or elsewhere, serious security concerns would be raised where interested partisan individuals could control whole "polling place" systems and access.

California and Washington State have now made moves toward implementing voting over the Internet. In California, Secretary of State Bill Jones has convened an "Internet Voting Task Force" in an effort to resolve issues of security and access even though former California Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a 1997 bill that authorized a composite on-line system, citing concerns about fraud.

Jones, however, is a staunch advocate and hopes that Internet voting will eventually increase voter turnout, now at the lowest levels in recent U.S. history. The Internet could also be used to revolutionize California's ballot initiative system. The cost of gathering sufficient signatures in today's market is now estimated at one million dollars for a statewide referendum, making the system vulnerable to charges that it shuts out all but the most monied special interests. The Internet could level the playing field of the initiative and referendum process.

The Washington State legislature failed to approve legislation this year for an Internet task force. However, both Secretary of State Ralph Munro and State Elections Director Gary McIntosh are strong supporters of the concept and predict limited on-line voting in two to three years. Legislative staff is studying the issue and will make recommendations in the future.

In May, Washington State voters in two jurisdictions had the opportunity to test Internet voting technology., a Washington-based internet voting provider which advertises itself as "the secure Internet voting company," tested its software platform engineering alongside live voting on library and school bond issues. 13 Voters voted their ballots as usual and then were given an opportunity to participate in the non-binding test.

Florida's Division of Elections is also moving toward adoption of a "Florida Internet and Intranet Voting Systems Standard." However, Paul Craft, the computer audit analyst and proponent of such approaches, acknowledges that, "We are not politically ready to do Net voting in this country," but he added, "...we are getting there." 14

In the federal arena, the Department of Defense will test an Internet-based voting system for U.S. citizens, including military, living abroad, which could be available in time for the presidential election of 2000. However, security of any Internet-based activity remains a concern. 15

Congress has yet to begin looking at Internet voting, although Congressman Bob Goodlatte (VA-6), co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Internet Caucus and Chairman of the House Republican High Technology Working Group, is concerned that such movement is premature. He has pledged to examine whether Congress needs to block Internet voting, at least for federal elections. 16 There appears to be no federal impediment to a State allowing Internet voting in state or federal elections. 17

Perhaps Congress and the states should consider a recent ABC News poll that indicated most Americans oppose internet voting, even if it can be made secure from fraud. Fifty-two percent of those polled were opposed, and seventy percent think the necessary level of security is many years off. However, among 18-34 year-olds, sixty-one percent support secure Internet voting. 18 Thus, the time is right to begin serious public dialogue on this important topic.

6. Virginian Pilot Ledger Star, March 19, 1999.

7. A registered voter in Texas, Wolf's ballot was e-mailed from his local election office, through Johnson Space Center and Russia's space agency before uplink to the space station.

8. October 28, 1998 Cyber Atlas

9. "Online Newcomers More Middle-Brow, Less Work-Oriented" The Pew Research Center For The People & the Press.

10. "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide," National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, July 9, 1999. This study also raised important issues of disparity of access. For example, it concluded that Whites are more likely to have Internet access at home than Blacks or Hispanics are from any location.

11. "Internet's E-conomy Gets Real," The Washington Post, June 20, 1999.

12. Dow Jones Newswires, May 27, 1999; U.S. News Online, "The mouse that voted," by James Morrow, June 21, 1999. The status of this proposal is uncertain at this time. The GOP did not act as scheduled.

13. Business Wire, May 12, 1999, "Internet Voting Catching On In Washington."

14. "Florida Pushes Online Voting," by Courtney Macavinta, CNET, December 11, 1998.
15. TechWeb, January 9, 1998. The Internet would probably not exist if it were not for DOD's early program to connect universities in a redundant network that would allow the armed forces and government personnel to maintain communications after an enemy attack.

16. Remarks before the Wednesday Wake-up Club, June 2, 1999, Arlington, Virginia.

17. Federal law permits votes for U.S. Representative and Senator to be cast by a voting machine authorized under state law. 2 U.S.C. 9.

18., July 21, 1999, "Virtual Voting: Poll Finds Most Oppose Online Ballots."

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