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Point, Click, VoteThe Future of Internet Voting
By R. Michael Alvarez Thad E. Hall
Brookings Institution PressCopyright © 2004 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Past and Future of Internet Voting
During the recount of votes in Florida in the 2000 presidential election, one of the most heated debates was over how military ballots should be counted. Under a 1982 federal consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and the state of Florida, ballots from overseas voters are to be accepted up to ten days after an election. As the nation watched and the presidential election hung in the balance, election supervisors and canvassing boards met to determine which overseas votes would count and which would not.
The canvassing boards often rejected as many or more ballots from overseas voters as they accepted. Orange County-home of the tourist magnet Disneyworld-rejected 117 overseas ballots and accepted only thirty. But in Escambia County-home of the Pensacola Naval Air Station -the canvassing board rejected 112 ballots and accepted 147. Across the state, election officials estimated that 40 percent of overseas ballots were rejected in the initial 2000 election count-about as many as were rejected in 1996.
Thousands of individuals-many of them men and women in the United States armed forces, military dependents, or civilians serving the nation in nonmilitary capacities-went to great lengths to procure an absentee ballot and vote in the 2000 election, only to have their ballot not included in the final count. In the end, their votes were disregarded for reasons that occur in election after election. The absentee ballots of many voters were rejected because the ballot lacked a signature or witness. In many other cases, the rejection of the ballot was not due to a mistake of the voter; while the Pentagon has rules specifying that all mail is to be postmarked, military mail clerks sometimes fail to do so in order to get the mail into bags and onto waiting airplanes or boats headed for the United States. As Pat Halloran, the election supervisor in Okaloosa County, noted, "Postmarks were never a problem before; we never accepted [ballots without postmarks] before, and we didn't accept them this time."
The experience of overseas voters in the 2000 election raises fundamental questions about the election process: Can technology facilitate voter registration and voting? Can registration and voting from remote locations be done easily and accurately, so that voters do not have to worry about whether they are eligible to vote or whether their ballot will be counted? For many, the answer seems simple: Internet voting.
The 2000 election was a historic event. Of course, most people view it as being historic for the obvious reason: it was one of the closest presidential elections in the history of the United States, and for thirty-seven days, it was unclear who would be elected president. The nation received a crash course in election administration, learning about voting procedures, voting equipment, pregnant and dimpled "chads," military and absentee voting, and the rules for counting and recounting ballots. In the end, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, by halting the Florida recounts, made the story that much more compelling.
However, the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential vote in Florida was not the only thing that made the election historic. History also was being made on election night because hidden among the tens of millions of ballots being counted across the country were eighty-four ballots that were unique in the history of U.S. presidential elections. These ballots were cast over the Internet by citizens overseas, the first online ballots ever counted in a presidential general election. Moreover, earlier in the year, online voting had come to the primary process in two states: in a straw poll of Alaska Republicans and in the Arizona Democratic presidential primary, when Arizona became first state to use the Internet as a mode of voting.
For many, Internet voting seems natural. Ever since the Netscape Navigator software made the World Wide Web easy to use, the Internet has been touted as a revolutionary force in American society. Indeed, in many ways, it has been revolutionary. In just four years, Internet use in the United States skyrocketed: while only 18 percent of households had an Internet connection in 1997, by 2000 almost 42 percent of households were online and more than half of all households had a personal computer. For young people, Internet availability is even more ubiquitous-almost 95 percent of white school children and approximately 80 percent of minority students have access to the Internet at school. An entire generation of kids will soon enter adulthood with no memory of a world without instant messaging, web surfing, and e-mail.
The revolutionary nature of the Internet has carried over to the political realm, as Internet savvy politicians have realized how this technology can be used to further their interests. Consider the following examples from the past several years:
Presidential candidates in the 2000 election used the Internet in every aspect of their campaigns. Steve Forbes declared his candidacy in an online web cast. Senator John McCain raised $810,000 in campaign contributions over the Internet in forty-eight hours after winning the New Hampshire primary; 40 percent of the donors were first-time political contributors and 34 percent were under the age of forty. Candidates posted speeches, policy positions, and attacks and counterattacks on their websites at a frantic pace as they competed to control the flow of information during the campaign.
Unconventional political activists also have found the Internet to be a revolutionary tool. As Juliette Beck, an activist in the antiglobalization movement, told the New York Times, "The events and the nonviolence training and the political theater-the Internet made it possible.... We have lots of Lilliputians all acting autonomously and at the same time connected." With the Internet, disparate groups of activists share information, coordinate activities, rally supporters, and develop strategies without ever meeting face to face. Wireless technology is expanding the opportunities for such activities, allowing political dissidents and other actors to communicate on the fly, as events occur.
Because of the difficulty of controlling the flow of information online, the Internet often is touted as the medium that will promote democracy around the world. As President Bill Clinton said, "In the new century, liberty will spread by cell phone and cable modem.... We know how much the Internet has changed America, and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China. Now, there's no question China has been trying to crack down on the Internet-good luck. That's sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall."
Finally, governments across the United States and around the world are developing "e-government" initiatives designed to connect the public to the government through the Internet. In addition to offering direct e-mail connections to government staff, e-government allows the public to access a variety of services online. For example, the federal government hopes to have 80 percent of taxpayers file their tax returns electronically by 2007; in fiscal year 2002, 20.7 percent of all tax returns were filed electronically. 11 Millions of Americans use the Internet every day to get information from the government, and there is growing demand for more online government services.
Internet Voting: A Good Idea?
With the Internet being used for a variety of different political activities-from collecting information to collecting political contributions-it is only a small leap to asking why the Internet cannot be used for voting as well. President Clinton asked just that question well before the 2000 presidential election; in a memorandum dated December 17, 1999, he directed the National Science Foundation to study the potential for Internet voting. Some would argue that Internet voting could be a panacea for what ails our political system.
But before we launch deeply into the debate over Internet voting, we need to clarify our use of the term. When we write about Internet voting in this book we are discussing what has been defined as "remote Internet voting." Remote Internet voting is voting by using a computer that is not under the physical control of election officials; the ballot is cast over an Internet connection. It is important to distinguish remote Internet voting, or what we refer to in this book as Internet voting, from three other types of Internet voting:
-Kiosk Internet voting. Voting is done at certain locations by using a computer under the physical control of election officials to cast a ballot over the Internet.
-Polling place Internet voting. Voting done at any valid polling place by using a computer under the physical control of election officials to cast a ballot over the Internet.
-Precinct Internet voting. Voting that is identical to polling place Internet voting except that the voter can vote only at his or her own precinct polling place.
Despite the four types of Internet voting, unless otherwise indicated, when we say Internet voting we mean remote Internet voting, although in practice a jurisdiction may use any combination of the four types in an election. In addition, our use of the term "voting" includes both registration and voting; thus when we write about Internet voting systems in this book, we are talking about an integrated remote Internet registration and voting system.
Proponents of Internet voting make several arguments in its favor. First, Internet voting may make it easier for voters to participate in an election because every computer that has an online connection becomes a potential polling site. Internet voting also might lower the cost of voting for the entire electorate, and it has the potential to eliminate problems such as those that might have kept millions of voters from participating in the 2000 presidential election. No longer would voters have to trudge down to a school, church, or community center in order to vote. No longer would factors like bad weather, long lines, or confusion over the location of polling places impede voter participation. Instead-in the comfort of their home or office, a public library, or an Internet café-individuals could log on and vote without having to make a special effort. The Internet also could be used to register voters and to allow them to check the status of their registration, thus reducing problems that often plague the first steps in the electoral process.
Internet voting could especially lower the cost of participation for certain special populations. Consider, for example, four types of voters. First, imagine a soldier overseas or a sailor on a nuclear submarine. Both are serving their country, yet their ability to vote is limited because of the logistics of obtaining an absentee ballot and getting it back in time to be counted. In the last presidential election, military personnel encountered numerous problems in the voting process. With the Internet, they could vote from anywhere in the world, confident that their vote would be received and counted.
Second, consider voters confined to a wheelchair. They want to participate in the electoral process like everyone else, but in most of the United States that is difficult for them to do. According to a General Accounting Office study conducted during the 2000 presidential election, more than 80 percent of polling places across the nation had some barrier that prevented citizens in a wheelchair from accessing the poll site. With Internet voting, disabled voters could cast their ballot from their own home without having to navigate the myriad of obstacles that await them at the polling place.
Third, imagine an executive who travels frequently or a working single parent. Both might want to vote on election day but find it difficult or impossible to do so because of events beyond their control. For example, the executive may have to take an unexpected trip out of town the day before the election or the single parent may have to work longer than usual on Election Day and then rush to get his or her children from the daycare center. Under current election procedures, these potential voters generally cannot obtain an absentee ballot on short notice. In each case, with Internet voting, these individuals could find it easier to vote because they could do so without having to make a trip to the polls.
Finally, Internet voting might pull the hardest-to-reach voters-those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five-into the political process. As noted, younger Americans typically are well-versed in using the Internet. They have a tremendous amount of experience in surfing the Net and like the idea of using new, cutting-edge technologies. Internet voting could help increase voting among this group, which historically has voted at very low rates. The Internet also could help many young people who are attending college away from home to vote without having to make a special trip home or request an absentee ballot.
Proponents also note that even without the Internet, alternative voting methods have become more pervasive since the early 1970s. The most extreme version of alternative voting is found in Oregon, which now holds all of its elections by mail. The state has no poll site voting at all; instead, all voters receive a ballot by mail that they can cast anytime after they receive it through election day. Oregon's system often is presented as analogous to Internet voting because it is a truly remote system designed to lower the cost of voting by making it easier to vote. According to that argument, Internet voting would not be much different from voting in Oregon: everyone votes from home; they just use the technologically superior Internet instead of the mail.
Internet voting also could have a positive effect on other factors that are difficult to quantify. Proponents of Internet voting have asserted that it could increase the quality of votes cast. It is easy to imagine a voter opening one browser window on her computer to display the ballot, opening a second window to display a voter guide with information about candidates and ballot measures, and opening two or three other windows to candidate, party, or other election-oriented websites. The voter could then spend more time becoming informed about the choices she faces, in the convenience of her home or office, increasing the quality of her vote. Internet voting systems could also be programmed to help voters avoid common mistakes, such as casting more votes than allowed in a certain race.
Imagine moreover a system of Internet voting in which voters can access their ballot weeks before the election, make their choices then, but revise their votes until 8:00 p.m. on election day.
Excerpted from Point, Click, Vote by R. Michael Alvarez Thad E. Hall Copyright © 2004 by Brookings Institution Press . Excerpted by permission.
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