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The Web: Online voting an election away

By GENE J. KOPROWSKI, United Press International   |   July 7, 2004 at 11:02 AM   |   Comments

A weekly series by UPI examining the global telecommunications phenomenon known as the World Wide Web.

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CHICAGO, July 7 (UPI) -- Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., announced his pick for the Democratic Party's vice presidential nomination Tuesday on the Internet, but how long will it be before voters actually get to choose the president and the vice president with a few keystrokes online?

Sooner than many have predicted -- perhaps within four to eight years.

"We're one presidential election, or maybe two presidential elections, away from Internet voting," said Ron Klein, a state senator and Democratic Party leader in the Florida Senate, who was involved in the 2000 election recount in Florida.

"There's no question that Internet voting is the future of voting," he told United Press International.

Just a few months ago, many of the computing -- and political - cognoscenti prematurely wrote-off Internet voting. That preconception was due to a number of converging factors.

For example, the Pentagon killed a project to let soldiers and sailors vote online, after a report by computer scientists David Wagner, Avi Rubin and David Jefferson, representing, respectively, the University of California, Berkeley; the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, indicated the system had "security vulnerabilities" that could jeopardize voter privacy and allow "votes to be altered."

Another controversy arose over an electronic voting system in California. The reliability of the voting machines was doubted, so implementation of the scheme was postponed.

"The hazards of e-voting are immense," Allan Saxe, associate professor of political science at University of Texas in Arlington, told UPI.

Nevertheless, backers of the electronic voting technology, in academia, politics and in the business world, are promoting the prospect of Internet voting in the coming years -- but not as the only option available.

Rather, they say, Internet voting will be one of many available means of casting a ballot, including voting on the day of the election at one's own polling place, absentee voting, or voting at a precinct far from home with an electronic swipe card. New, computing technologies and encrypted, secure software are making this possible.

"With a swipe card, you can vote, securely, at any polling place in the state," said Klein, the politician, who is also an attorney in private practice in Boca Raton.

As evidence of this coming public election trend, experts point to the private sector, where 1.7 million elections are held each year for unions, trade associations and corporations via alternative means.

"Every week, in the private sector, there are elections," Jeff Zaino, vice president of elections at the American Arbitration Association in New York City, told UPI. "They use a variety of voting technologies."

A recent private sector election -- seeking ratification of a bankruptcy reorganization plan by a major airline -- was conducted over the Internet and through interactive voice response telephone systems. No paper ballots were used, but turnout was extraordinary, said Zaino, who noted 70,000 voters participated. Pilots, flight attendants and baggage handlers all voted, with pilots achieving a voting rate of more than 90 percent.

"Each union had its highest response rate ever," said Zaino, whose organization, a third-party arbitration provider, ran and monitored the election.

"We received calls from pilots saying that there were problems with the system, but it turned out to be problems with their PCs," he said.

For union workers who may not have a PC, or who may not feel comfortable voting online, telephone voting is available.

To make sure no one has stolen the voter's personal identification number, or PIN, union workers were instructed to vote from home "so the system could verify who they were with caller ID," Zaino said.

The actual vote cast, however, was private, and Zaino compared the caller ID to a high-tech version of checking someone's voter registration card at the polling place.

Concerns about the technology remain, however, even if security, privacy and the integrity of the vote can be guaranteed, Jeff Matsuura, director of the law and technology program at the University of Dayton, Ohio, told UPI.

A risk of e-voting is online electioneering.

Matt Streb, an assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, told UPI when he attended Indiana University in the 1990s, student government elections were conducted over the Internet and aggressive campaigns bought beer for students in exchange for PINs.

"College elections can be strange, but you may see something like that in a presidential election where the stakes are much higher," Streb said.

To combat such tactics, many jurisdictions restrict the time, place and space where campaigns can solicit voters around polling places.

If voting is done online, on a home PC, a voter still might receive e-mail messages trashing the opposition and seeking to change their opinion, even as the voting takes place.

Just moments after Kerry announced he had picked Sen. John. Edwards, D-N.C., as his vice presidential nominee, the Republican National Committee sent out a blast e-mail asking, "Who is John Edwards?" The e-mail answered its own rhetorical question, stating that Edwards was a "disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal and friend to personal injury trial lawyers."

The message also included a link to a site, kerrypicksedwards.com, where voters could find news articles on Edwards, including one from the June 1, 2003, edition of The Washington Monthly headlined, "Tilting at Windmills," which reported on the Edwards Senate race from 1998.

"One evening while he was campaigning for the Senate in North Carolina, Edwards was faced with a choice of several events he might attend. An advance man suggested, 'Maybe we ought to go to the reception for Leah Rabin?' Edwards responded, 'Who's she?' 'Yitzhak Rabin's widow,' replied the aide. 'Who was he?' asked Edwards," per the magazine's report.

Those kind of tactics, however, which enlighten voters on the candidates, may not be so bad, said Eva Rosenberg, a Californian and publisher of Taxmama.com, located in Northridge. Rosenberg has participated in online elections for a professional association, the National Association of Enrolled Agents, which featured electioneering as part of the process.

"This was when the general membership voted for the officers of the association," Rosenberg told UPI. "You could be there looking at the ballot, not knowing who these people are. Or, if you are voting online, you could click on the names and be hyperlinked to information about the candidates. You can click another link, open another window, and find out even more about them. You can look on the Internet and see what else has been written about them. You can research on things that you didn't have time to -- at the time you are casting your ballot."

Skepticism still remains, however, among leading opinion makers in politics and Internet marketing about the social implications of Internet voting.

"The threshold for secure Internet voting for a federal election is higher than for the private sector, and for good reason," said Robert Arena, former director of Internet strategy for the Dole for President campaign in 1996. He is now vice president of the interactive division of Carton Donofrio Partners, an advertising agency in Washington D.C.

"The private sector doesn't appoint Supreme Court justices with lifetime terms," Arena said.

Other, more intangible cultural factors also are at issue here. By allowing voters to cast their ballots in the isolation of their living room or home office, a "shared experience" that all United States citizens have, going to the polling place, will disappear and "something tangible and important is lost if Election Day turns into something as insignificant as checking e-mail," said Arena, who also has been an Internet consultant to the Republican National Committee.

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Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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