High-Tech Firms Develop Risky Online Voting Niche

Article excerpt

As president of VoteHere.Net, a start-up company that builds secure Internet voting systems, Jim Adler hears the same question from investors again and again. They don't ask about politics or security. They want to know what would happen if Microsoft moved into the election business.

Adler has a ready reply: "Do you think the Justice Department would let Microsoft run elections in this country?"

VoteHere.Net, which is based in Kirkland, Wash., is one of a handful of companies that are building systems to enable voters to cast ballots over the Internet. Since no states allow Internet voting -- few are even in the earliest stages of contemplating it -- the companies are focusing their efforts on building the trust of election officials in their products and reputations. VoteHere.Net is new to the industry, but most of these companies are already in the election business, selling voting machines and computer equipment for reading ballot results, and they are anticipating demand for Internet voting software. "Our primary focus is on continuing to sell our products and to participate in the evolution," said Steve Knecht, western regional manager for Global Election Systems. "This is going to be a slow process." Global, based in McKinney, Texas, sells touch-screen voting systems and equipment that scans ballot results into computers. The company has also developed software to demonstrate how an Internet voting system would work. The companies developing Internet voting products plan initially to sell to non-governmental entities like universities, unions and professional associations. Online elections among those groups, company officials hope, will build public trust and brand recognition that will serve the companies well if and when legislatures approve online voting in the biggest potential market, civic elections. As it stands, only a few state legislatures have begun to address Internet voting. Bills to initiate studies of the concept were introduced recently in Minnesota and Washington state. In California, the Legislature passed a bill to study the issue in 1997, but it was vetoed by the governor then, Pete Wilson, because of fears of fraud and vote-tampering. …