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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY | DIGITAL NATION

Casting a Vote of Caution on Online Voting

March 20, 2000|Gary Chapman

Democracy in the United States took a portentous step last month when registered Democrats in Arizona were allowed to vote in the state's party primary election via the Internet. It was the first time that the Internet was used for an official U.S. election with binding results. Arizona voters cast ballots over the Internet from March 7 to 11, and they could vote from anywhere.

Many people believe that online voting is inevitable and that it will increase voter participation, which has been declining in recent years throughout the nation. The U.S. now ranks 139th among 170 democratic nations for voter turnout. In 1996, voter turnout in the presidential election was just under 50% for the first time. In many local elections voter participation is under 20% of registered voters and under 10% of eligible voters.

Voter participation is particularly weak among younger voters, those between 18 and 25, who are the most likely segment of the population to use the Internet. Democratic Party officials in Arizona hoped to see a huge increase in participation because of the new provision for voting online. The party contracted with a private company, Election.com, to run the primary.

Joe Mohen, Election.com's chief executive, reported last week that after just one day of voting, the Arizona Democratic primary recorded more votes, about 16,000, than the entire 1996 primary.

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This is part of a national trend. Florida, Alaska and the federal government are all looking into Internet voting. President Clinton formed a task force last December to examine the future of online voting for national elections.

California Secretary of State Bill Jones convened a study group (http://www.ss.ca.gov/executive/ivote), which released its report in January. There is a petition on file in California to put a referendum on the November ballot that would allow Internet voting in California, a petition backed by Election.com.

There are a host of problems with Internet voting. In Arizona, the state Democratic Party was challenged in court by a Virginia-based nonprofit organization called the Voting Integrity Project (http://www.voting-integrity.org), as well as four Arizona plaintiffs, two Latinos and two African Americans. These plaintiffs argued that because of the "digital divide"--the disparity in Internet access between economic and ethnic groups--online voting would be a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt denied a request for an injunction preventing online voting, so the process began in Phoenix on March 7 at one minute after midnight. However, the judge said in his ruling that "there's no question there's a digital divide" and that it could possibly result in racial discrimination in the Arizona primary.

"That was baffling to me," said Anthony Wilhelm of the Benton Foundation in Washington, and author of the new book "Democracy in the Digital Age."

Wilhelm was an expert witness for the plaintiffs during the injunction hearing. He showed the judge data that reported that non-Latino, white registered Democrats in Arizona make up 57% of the eligible electorate, but 83% of the state's home Internet users. Latino voters made up 21% of the party's voters, but only 10% of home Internet users. Native Americans are 19% of Arizona Democratic voters, but less than 1% of Internet users.

"There's just this default to the Internet culture," Wilhelm said. "It seems like we're sacrificing our democratic process on the altar of our faith in technology."

Mohen said in response to the legal complaint that the Internet will allow far more people to vote without hardship, including people in remote areas, the working poor who have more than one job, single mothers, and the disabled and housebound.

The Voting Integrity Project's lawsuit is only beginning, however. They will challenge the results of the Arizona primary after the election, with a full trial scheduled for possibly June or July, said attorney Michael Nadel.

Another source of objections to Internet voting is the insecurity of the Internet, which raises concerns about voter fraud, privacy, malicious hacking and vote selling. In the California task force report on "i-voting," the technical appendix notes several serious obstacles to ensuring election security over the Internet, to the point that the report discourages remote voting from conventional home computers.

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The report says, for example, "Current commercial browsers are not suitable for voting because they are particularly vulnerable to malicious software." Instead, home PC users might be required to start their machines with a special CD-ROM for elections or even use an entirely different device that might plug into the PC.

Election.com says its system is safely secure. "We just know what we're doing," Mohen said, adding that the Election.com network is comparable to systems used to wire transfer large sums of money.

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