Should the Mouse Cast Your Vote?

Article excerpt

Elections in cyberspace may yet be the wave of the future, despite concern about security and privacy. Some experts predict candidates will vie for computer geeks and shut-ins.

The Commerce Department calls the cyberspace age the era of the "digital divide." Those with incomes of $75,000 and more are likely to have Internet access 20 times more often than those at the lowest income levels, according to a recent Commerce report, "Falling Through the Net." And it's this division, along with potential for fraud, that concerns critics who worry some sharpshooting hacker might alter the future of the U.S. presidency with the click of a mouse.

Like it or not, the digital divide already is a factor in political polls, and local, state and national candidates soon may be vying for the e-vote. State election boards in California, Florida, Washington, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Arizona and Maryland are reviewing the option. The National Convention of State Legislatures in Chicago recently put the option on its list of top priorities and several states will decide on their upcoming ballot whether to allow e-voting. If the measure succeeds in the states, brace yourself: The federal government is not likely to be far behind. This year, under the Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program, 350 military personnel posted overseas will vote online. If this works for the military there are plans to expand the scheme to include all U.S. citizens abroad.

Supporters claim e-voting is no more of a security risk than absentee balloting or Oregon's mail-in votes. They note that, in the private sector, e-voting already is a big hit in electing corporate and association boards and even union officials.

Indeed, the political parties began toying with the Internet this year for primary contests, trying to capture and attract more votes. Considering Americans in 1998 had a turnout in the general elections of 44.9 percent, which ranks 138 in a list of 170 voting nations, e-voting supporters claim to be offering a way to energize lethargic citizens.

In the Arizona Democratic presidential primary, Internet voting produced immediate results with nearly half the votes cast coming via the Net. "It was an extreme success," says Bill Taylor, senior vice president of New York-based Election. corn, which handled the Arizona Internet primary election and is one of a handful of technology companies that conduct corporate and political elections. "There was a 650 percent increase in voting as compared to 1996," Taylor notes of the wired Arizona Democratic primary.

But David Brady, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and cochairman of Stanford's Social Science History project, doubts e-voting will impact national turnout. "My view is that in national elections it will not increase turnout," says Brady, who serves on the board of Election.com. He does think it will be both popular and effective in local or union elections where detailed information can be supplied on the Internet.

Rick Valelly, a professor of political science at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, doesn't see voter turnout increasing even at the local level. "Since the 1960s it has declined 17 more points and we are more educated. The

more educated we get, the less we seem to vote." He adds: "I don't like it. Internet voting is like voting alone, isolated. It's like Oregon's mail vote. I don't like that, either. There's a lot to be said for the collective nature of voting. Voting should be a civic ritual."

So much for the aesthetics; how safe is Internet voting? Brady says the "fraud will be no greater than the mail ballots in Oregon or any ballots sent home" but admits the possibility of hacker fraud does exist.

Companies preparing to compete for big government contracts argue that it's safe, reliable, accurate -- and no more perilous than the ballot box or polling booth, where elections have been stolen on and off for centuries as even the dead in Chicago somehow have managed to get to the polls. …