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E-Voting

by Laura Forlano, Dec 01, 2000
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I dream of voting in my pajamas. I guess I could do this in my local polling place, since the lights are so dim that the election workers would probably not notice. But I'm talking about voting in the comfort of my own home, over the Internet. That is what some people are talking about now, after all the snafus with the voting process this year -- and I don't mean just the problems in Florida.

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On Election Day, when I arrived at my polling place in the East Village (wearing gym clothes), I managed to get in the correct line for my district right from the start. This was a first. I stepped up to the desk, checked in -- and was handed a paper ballot to fill out, by hand.

"Machine's broken," the election worker explained. "What," I thought, "No levers, no curtains, just a ball-point pen and paper?" I was truly disappointed. I had been looking forward to standing in the dark, flicking down all those little levers, and casting my vote.

New York City's 38-year old voting machines are badly in need of an upgrade. After weeks of counts and recounts down in Florida, it is becoming clear that so are those in the rest of the nation. But should antiquated voting booths be tossed in favor of computers and the Internet?

"For a quarter century, election experts have been calling for the Vote-O-Matic system to be retired," says Erik Nilsson, an election technology analyst for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, an industry association. The Vote-O-Matic is the oldest type of computerized ballot still in use in many places, including two of the Florida counties, Dade and Palm Beach, that are the focus of the controversy in the presidential race. "The results of the 2000 election show that it is now time to move beyond this temperamental antique."

Momentum is building for technological solutions to frustrations at the polls. Microsoft ran a large ad in the New York Times about the potential for electronic voting about a week prior to the election.

A week after the election, US Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said at a press conference, "The current system is antediluvian. We haven't updated it in any significant way in years, and that's one of the reasons why turnout has declined nearly 20 percent since 1960... We should use our latest advances in technology and our vast collective experience to make voting as accurate, convenient and accessible as possible." Schumer plans to introduce legislation to support research by the Federal Election Commission on new ways of voting via computers and the Internet.

It is perhaps inevitable that polling places will be equipped with upgraded computers in the near future, in order to increase speed and efficiency. "A PC-cum-voting booth, for example, could prompt a voter to confirm a choice before submitting it, preventing an accidental Buchanan surge among the canasta set. It would allow ballots to be counted and recounted in the nanoseconds that it takes the silicon brains to calculate a digit of pi," wrote New York Times business reporter John Schwartz.

Voting from your living room on the Internet would be significantly more complicated. But Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility cites many advantages in Internet voting, such as customizability, reliable vote tabulation, access for the disabled and for rural voters and the ability to handle a large number of voters.

Internet voting could increase voter turnout, adds Steve Schneider, editor of Net Election, the Web site of the Annenberg School of Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. "A significant barrier to people voting is their difficulty in registration," he has said. "Any way you make registration easier for people has got to have the effect of increasing voting, even if it's a small amount."

But other experts warn that the movement to replace the out-of-date machinery of voting will only create more problems. Some, such as Ford Fessenden in a recent New York Times article, say that more modern, accurate systems can cost as much as fifteen times more than the old systems. This is disputed, though, by analysts at Meta Group of Stamford, Connecticut, who say a Web voting system could be built for $250 million, or $1.23 per voter, which is a substantial savings over the costs of existing voting methods as reported by Washington Technology News.

But it is not just an issue of expense. "I don't believe that just because a technology is old that it means that it should be thrown out," said voting security expert Rebecca Mercuri in a November 30 interview with WBAI http://www.wbai.org in New York. Mercuri recently completed her doctoral dissertation, "Electronic Vote Tabulation Checks & Balances," at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering.

The disadvantages of e-voting in particular, some say, would be extreme. Shortcomings include voter fraud, privacy and security threats, and lack of access to those without computers. "People see Internet voting as a solution," Mercuri has said. "It's chilling. It will compromise voter anonymity and auditability. It would solve the recount problem, because we won't be able to do a recount."

Despite this, Internet voting is already happening, at least in a few small trials. This year several hundred U.S. military personnel stationed overseas were able to vote online as part of the Federal Voter Assistance Program. In addition, earlier this year, a company called Election.com held the first online political election, the Democratic Party primary in Arizona.

The election was not without its glitches, including lost pin numbers, browser problems and closed polling places due to the lack of volunteers.

Still, the company has conducted 250 elections for government agencies, unions and corporations to date and has been getting international requests for their Internet election service. And Election.com is not the only company vying for the chance to provide electronic registration and voting technology. Other players include OnlineDemocracy and BeAVoter.

The campaigns this year showed an unprecedented role for the Internet, enabling Americans to get valuable information about the candidates, and donate to their campaigns. The Gore campaign sent out 30 million e-mails to supporters.

This increasing familiarity with the Internet, combined with recent events, have stimulated interest in replacing out-of-date vote machines. But will everybody in the nation (or New York) be voting over the Internet by the 2004 election? Let me put it this way: If I wind up voting in my pajamas then, it will only be because I'm dreaming.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.
More about:
voting, election, internet




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