Point, click, vote?

You may be ready to vote online, but the Net's not ready for you.

THE RITUAL of casting a ballot in an American election is as different from day-to-day online life as you can get. I like that: I like driving to the school up the hill. I like joking with the old guy checking my name on the voter rolls. I like standing in a little cubbyhole looking very seriously at a sheet of paper and thinking about all the other Americans doing the same thing on this day and all the years before. (When I lived in New York, I really liked those machines with the big clunky levers— extra-large slot machines that either would or would not pay out in acceptable politicians—but don't let's start.)

All these things are secondary to the process of casting my ballot in a representative democracy, but then again, they're not. These things are important. They're so important that we're going to have to replicate them before Internet-based voting is a reality. Two Puget Sound companies are among those working to make it so, but don't be surprised if you're still making the trek to your local polling place in 2004 or beyond.

The current American voting process is designed (at least, in theory) to make voting accessible to as many people as possible while preventing fraud and protecting anonymity: The elderly volunteer confirms my ID and makes sure I don't come back for seconds, but what's on my ballot is shielded from all eyes but mine. As technology has advanced through the years, watchdog organizations, such as the Honest Ballot Association (formed in 1909 by former President Teddy Roosevelt in response to massive fraud in New York elections) and the Virginia-based Voting Integrity Project, have kept an eye on things. Some of the issues raised by such groups in the past—for instance, the potential for fraud when punch-card ballots came into use in the '60s—are coming around again as an electorate accustomed to trading stocks and shopping for groceries online asks why it ought to stand in line to vote.

Here's the problem: Last week, Microsoft revealed it had been hacked. . . . Security out the window, source code over the ocean, heads rolling down the streets of Redmond at any minute! If Microsoft—allegedly so smart and paranoid it made fools of the entire rest of the industry for years (necessitating antitrust action by the Justice Department)—can't protect its bits and bytes, what happens when the very future of American democracy is flitting across the wires?

WATCHDOG GROUPS are lining up on either side of the argument. The Honest Ballot Association is working with election.com to incorporate technology into the voting process. Proponents of online voting argue that increased access will increase voting in such underrepresented demographics as disabled voters, rural voters, and the 18-to-25 set.

Opponents often cite the Digital Divide as sufficient reason to avoid online voting for the foreseeable future, arguing the realities of who's got Net access mean that online voting will lead to overrepresentation of wealthier, whiter folks at the expense of poorer, browner ones. The Voting Integrity Project has spoken out strongly against online voting; chair Deborah Phillips calls it both discriminatory and dangerous, a modern-day version of the literacy test. (The VIP was a party to the lawsuit attempting to block Arizona's online Democratic primary in March.) Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation is coming to the end of its one-year study of the feasibility of online voting; results will probably be released around the turn of the year, as we welcome a new wealthy white guy into the land's highest office.

Criticism isn't limited to offline groups. The California-based People for Internet Responsibility, founded by Net professionals with decades of experience at making this stuff work, has strongly criticized hasty incorporation of the Net and the ballot box, noting that "Internet voting is perhaps the perfect example of an application where rushing into deployment could have severe negative repercussions of enormous importance." Touching only briefly on Digital-Divide arguments, the PFIR statement focuses on the technical aspects of creating a system that replicates both anonymity and authentication, protects data on the servers, and ensures virus-writers can't cook up a concoction to intercept and change votes before they're counted. (And to answer the Microsoft question posed above, PFIR recommends third-party source-code inspection—stopping just short of a call for open source.)

Around the Sound, Bellevue's VoteHere.net and eBallot.net, based downtown, are attempting to work out the kinks in the system.

VoteHere, currently conducting trials in San Diego, Sacramento, and Arizona, uses an interesting encryption structure (a bit like the public-private key PGP system) that protects data from being viewed by intruders or decrypted by the company itself. The system is currently working its way through the renowned Patent Office.

EBallot, which managed the "mixed-media" Reform Party national primary, has already batted back advances by hackers during that vote—35 attempted attacks ranging from the usual ballot-stuffing to a denial-of-service attempt.

THE FACT IS online voting is already with us in both actual, binding elections for nonpolitical contests and test "shadow" elections conducted in tandem with real voting during the current political season.

The recent elections for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which were conducted by election.com, provide a model of how to do a big election online. The good news is the system worked; the bad news is proponents of "convenient" online voting would have been better off standing in line. The problem with that, of course, is the ICANN elections were global; there was no polling place but the Net. Still, it was a complicated process. To vote, one had to register several months ahead of the election, giving both e-mail and snail mail addresses. ICANN sent each voter's membership number and password by e-mail and PIN by snail mail.

Once you had all three data points, you could log on and vote during the 10-day election period, but the polls had a way of closing unexpectedly. (This good cybercitizen personally got knocked off the site four times before she successfully cast her ballot.) Problems with snail-mail delivery, higher-than-expected voter turnout, and uneven server load are estimated to have disenfranchised thousands, with only 76,000 of the 158,000 registered to vote actually accomplishing that goal (and thousands more allegedly unable to register due to ICANN server trouble). According to the Carter Center Democracy Project, which observed the elections, there were "serious technical problems;" however, the center did declare the elections to be "reasonably free, open, and competitive."

In other words, it's a start. Closer to home in Thurston County, county auditor Sam Reed (Seattle Weekly's choice to be our next Secretary of State) conducted the nation's first county-wide trial (nonbinding) Net primary last February. (The more widely publicized Arizona Democratic primary was a binding election.) Over 18 days, 3,638 voters tried out a VoteHere.net-managed system that got a whopping 91.5 percent approval rating from those who tried it out.

According to Reed, who has published an excellent recap of the process at www.co.thurston.wa.us/auditor1, many of the participating voters used machines set up at the polling stations, but there were several casting remote Internet ballots (that is, from their own computers)—not unusual in a county in which well over 75 percent of the electorate votes by mail. VoteHere detected 101 attempts to double-vote. None of them was successful.

We'll probably be close to online voting by the 2004 elections, but it's unlikely the entire process will be online. (Individuals aren't the only entities dealing with the Digital Divide: There are entire polling stations in America without so much as phone service.) In the meantime, spare a friendly word for the folks at your local polling place. The way things are going, democracy may well miss them when they're gone.

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