California Takes Up Issue of Online Voting

By Rebecca Fairley Raney
Published March 18, 1999. Copyright, New York Times.


In the first state-level effort to study the feasibility of an Internet voting system, California's Secretary of State convened a task force on Wednesday to examine the issues involved with casting ballots online.

Secretary Bill Jones opened the group's first meeting by telling the panel of two dozen technologists, political scientists and election officials: "Technology and people's expectations are going to force us to deal with these issues. The rest of the country expects California to lead on this."

While legislatures in a few other states, including Washington and Minnesota, are considering bills that would direct election officials to study the feasibility of Internet voting, California is the first to convene a panel. Jones set up the group on his own after a bill to study the issue was vetoed in 1997 by former Gov. Pete Wilson, who cited security concerns. The secretary's panel is expected to release a report in a few months.

The Pentagon is sponsoring another major move toward developing an Internet voting system. The Federal Voting Assistance Program is currently developing guidelines for a pilot project to allow overseas residents of five states -- Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and Utah -- both military and civilian, to vote via the Internet in 2000.

In California, the political obstacles to passing online voting legislation are expected to be significant; in fact, members of the task force on Wednesday found themselves tangled in legal, political and technical trouble within a few minutes of opening discussion.

Elitism, phantom voters, clunky county election technology and unfinanced state mandates tumbled onto the table quickly. It was evident early in the discussion that regardless of any state-level action, the creation of Internet voting systems would ultimately be a local-level endeavor.

"Counties pay for elections in this state," said Dwight Beattie, assistant registrar of voters for Sacramento County. "So when you're making new things, you may be dealing with a county that can afford that, and you may not."

Later in the discussion, Beattie described a disturbing technological reality: many counties are still dealing with 20-year-old IBM punch-card voting systems which would be difficult to integrate with Internet technology. "We bring people out of retirement to work on the IBM machines," he explained.

Another obstacle to an Internet voting system may be public perception. Jonathan Nagler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside, presented this scenario: "People with high incomes can vote from home, and everyone else has to drive to the polling place to vote. You're going to have a policy problem with this."

Security took up the greatest part of the discussion. Several members of the panel represented software companies that have created Internet voting systems. They were invited for their expertise in online security.

"The greatest worry is the creation of phantom voters created by some hacker, or some Chinese cyber-terrorist, to undermine the American voting system," said David Jefferson, a research engineer for Compaq Computer's Network Systems Lab.

Jim Adler, president of Soundcode, a software company in Kirkland, Wash., that has developed an online voting system, made a distinction between a voting system and other types of online security.

"This is not an e-commerce site," he said. "This is not just, drop your signature and here we go."

Tim Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, responded, "People put their credit cards out there."

"That isn't voting," Adler said. "The voter privacy issue is sacred."

Others questioned whether allowing people to cast ballots via the Internet would truly increase voter turnout -- an issue the task force has been charged with studying.

"The potential criticism is, if you simply want to increase voter turnout, have a 24-hour voting day," said Linda Valenty, a professor of political science at San Jose State University. "If you want to increase voter turnout, fine people for not voting as they do in Australia."

Several people at the table were convinced that the convenience of casting ballots online would get more people to vote, however.

"You're going to get voters you never got before," Draper said. "You're going to get workers who never had time."

Toward the end of the meeting, an election official raised the question of why creating a new voting system had to be such a long, tedious process. After the task force releases its report, Internet voting legislation will probably be introduced in California several times before it passes. In all, the creation of such a system could be years away. Warren Slocum, the San Mateo County Clerk, recalled how, 20 years ago, California's absentee voting system was created very simply, without study.

Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, responded that the Internet is different.

"We need a plan because people don't understand the Internet," she said. "We have to create a strategy to allay these fears."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company




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