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Internet Voting Won't Solve U.S. Election Problems

Internet Voting Won't Solve U.S. Election Problems

Internet Voting Won't Solve U.S. Election Problems

Wed, 7 Mar 2001 21:45:12 –0500

(New study urges caution in movement to electronic voting) (1050) By Charlene Porter Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Internet voting will not provide a short-term solution to the problems in U.S. voting procedures that became apparent after the 2000 presidential election, according to findings released March 6 by the Washington-based Internet Policy Institute (IPI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization.

A system that would allow voters to cast ballots from their home or office computers would pose "substantial security risks," according to the Report of the National Workshop on Internet Voting. Such a system would introduce significant possibilities for ballot fraud and manipulation of results, the report continues. "Current and near-term technologies are inadequate to address these risks," it says.

The report conveys a strong warning about Internet voting from homes and offices, at the same time it details potential benefits for more limited forms of cyberspace ballots if the proper control and security systems can be developed. The IPI report suggests that Internet voting may make casting a ballot more convenient and thus boost participation in an electoral process that has been steadily eroding over the last several decades in the United States.

Vinton Cerf, co-inventor of the protocols that allow computers to communicate with each other, enabling creation of the Internet, underscored that Internet voting has the potential to save both time and money. When it comes to ensuring accuracy in a final ballot count, Cerf, also a member of the IPI board of directors, added that Internet voting "will beat all the mechanical systems."

The IPI report distinguishes three types of Internet voting: voting on computer terminals at traditional polling sites; voting on terminals located in kiosks at non-traditional locations, such as libraries, public buildings and shopping malls; and remote voting, allowing a citizen to cast a ballot from any computer.

The study panel envisioned different logistical, technological and social problems with each different type of voting, and recommended the near-term pursuit of Internet voting only at traditional polling places.

IPI researcher David Cheney said, "Poll site Internet voting offers some benefits" and could be responsibly deployed in the not-too-distant future. "We think it's very appropriate to do experiments" at the voting precinct level very soon, Cheney continued.

Regarding kiosk voting, Cheney said a significant number of technological and security problems would need to be overcome, "but they are not impossible."

The greatest caution was raised at the prospect of remote voting. "This is not something to be rushed into," Cheney warned.

Speaking at a Washington news conference, members of the IPI study panel also emphasized that Internet voting should not serve as a replacement for traditional forms of voting because of the possibility that such a move could disenfranchise voters who are not comfortable with computer use.

Panel member Roy Saltman said his greatest concern is about how Internet voting could widen the digital divide -- the knowledge gap between voters who know how to use computer technology and Internet resources and those who don't. He said the disputes about the outcome of the Florida votes in the U.S. presidential election made clear that "far too many people don't know how to use the (voting) system we have now." Internet voting would add yet another ballot-casting method that could further confuse some voters. Saltman emphasized that a major commitment would have to be made to educate citizens about Internet voting.

For actual use in a public election, the panel's analysis says any Internet voting system would have to meet 12 criteria concerning a system's capability for authentication, accuracy, verifiability, secrecy and related issues. But just one item on the panel's criteria list could kill any hopes for implementation of such systems -- cost.

In the United States, governments at the county level administer all the logistical details of opening and staffing polling places, registering voters and counting ballots on election day. Those governments usually bear the cost of the voting equipment that is used in each polling place. The diverse governance of election administration and funding leads to the use of a wide array of technology at polling places, a situation that came to be viewed as problematic with the Florida balloting dispute that arose in the aftermath of the 2000 election.

Decisions about the purchase of Internet voting systems would likely be made independently in the nation's more than 3,000 counties. The cost of purchasing new Internet voting equipment would probably deter widespread implementation of such systems, according to Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, a cosponsor of the discussions that formed the basis for the IPI report.

Herrnson said, "These governments have many other priorities including roads, bridges, hospitals and schools. Purchasing expensive voting equipment used once or twice every two years does not weigh as heavily as these other needs for these officials."

Internet voting is currently being used successfully in what panel members referred to as "private elections," those conducted by labor unions and corporations seeking stockholder guidance. Panel members expressed optimism about the expansion of the technologies in that type of voting, but also underscored the lesser degree of security that is required in situations where the eligible pool of voters is so small.

The IPI report cautions about the hasty conversion to Internet voting in the United States, but some members of the study panel suggest that other nations might be better able to avert some of the security and voter identification problems outlined in the report. In an interview, Adam Powell, a member of the executive committee overseeing the IPI study, said several European nations may have "existing (election) infrastructures and procedures which would be easier to translate into standard electronic forms."

Herrnson also said that any centralized governmental system -- like that of the United Kingdom or France -- would encounter fewer problems in implementing a system of Internet voting than would be experienced in a federated governmental system like that in the United States. "They would not face some of the same challenges as the United States," he said.

The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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