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San Jose Mercury News

 

August 8, 1998

 

 

 

Officials attracted to online voting

 

 

Young adults wired but disconnected from democracy Californians could be voting over the Internet in five years with a computerized system that could revolutionize the state's voting process and boost sagging voter turnout. Secretary of State Bill Jones is recruiting Silicon Valley high-tech companies to study how to make such a system private and secure from fraud. Momentum is building nationwide from a pilot project that would let some overseas military personnel cast votes over the Net in the November 2000 election.

Detractors say the technology may not exist to make such a system tamperproof. Others say it could favor the affluent and plugged-in over minorities and low-income groups who are less likely to own computers.

Such a project could take five to 10 years to be implemented, but some people are pushing for sooner.

``We're just constantly hearing from voters who ask, when will we be able to vote online,'' said Kim Alexander, president of the non-profit California Voter Foundation. ``A lot of people see it as inevitable.''

San Mateo County Clerk Warren Slocum, who has spoken and written on the idea, said California could be a beta test site for 21st-century democracy. The Net could make voting more convenient and accessible for those who mean to vote but get sidetracked on their way to the polls, and for 18- to 25-year-olds, the age group least likely to vote.

``Our population is wired. They're busy,'' Slocum said. ``We need to modernize the election approach and give this wired population an opportunity to re-engage in democracy.''

Turnout tailspin
Supporters say they are willing to consider anything that could reverse the long-term decline in voter turnout in California, where participation in the 1996 election dropped to the lowest level of any presidential election since 1924.

Clearly, Jones' task force will have to answer some tough questions about security before desktop computers could double as electronic voting booths. For example, how can election officials ensure that the person voting is who they say they are? How can officials prevent them from voting twice? How can voters be sure their ballots remain secret?

That's where Silicon Valley companies such as Mountain View-based Verisign Inc. could come in, Jones said. Verisign is one of the largest of a few dozen companies that have addressed Internet security by issuing digital certificates.

Verisign and Netscape Communications Corp. were members of a task force that Jones convened to help draft recently approved regulations on digital signatures. And they probably will be asked to lend their expertise to the online voting committee, Jones said.

``It really isn't futuristic,'' said Anil Pereira, Verisign's director of corporate marketing. ``. . We believe the technology is already there.''

Erina Dubois, a digital commerce analyst at the San Jose market research firm Dataquest Inc., said that's true. But she isn't sure if voters would be willing to use it.

Common business device
While more and more businesses have adopted the digital certificate technology, it hasn't caught on with consumers, she said. "Most consumers don't have one, they don't understand the benefits.''

Certificates have been used on a relatively small scale, but questions remain about how well certificates could be managed on a large scale.

Dubois and Ira Machefsky, an analyst at the technology market research firm Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, said these issues would have to be ironed out, too:

  • Ensuring people didn't vote online, then vote in person.

  • Setting up a system where people might receive their digital certificates in person so they could verify their identity.

  • Setting up a help desk for wired voters who become confused.
Still, Machefsky, who tracks digital certificate issues, predicted that California voters will vote online by the 2004 presidential election. ``I would be very surprised if some sort of support for online voting wasn't in place at the state level,'' he said.

Private concerns
Privacy advocates, though, balk at the idea of setting up a universal digital ID system by issuing digital certificates. Today, there are already detailed dossiers on a person's purchases, tax information and medical, school and police records, said Stanton McCandlish of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit civil liberties and privacy group.

``The only thing that keeps us from being a Big Brother (society) is the fact the system isn't totally universal yet,'' he said.

McCandlish said digital signatures should be used once instead of being assigned permanently.

Other major questions remain.
A report by the Department of Commerce found that white households were nearly three times as likely to have online access as black or Hispanics. Those earning $50,000 to about $75,000 were nearly twice as likely to own computers as those earning $25,000 to about $35,000.

``In the latest numbers I've seen, 20 percent of (minority) households don't even have a basic phone in the home, much less a computer or Internet access,'' said Luis Arteaga, interim executive director of the Latino Issues Forum in San Francisco.

The key question is which voters officials want to target, Arteaga said. ``If they really want to bring out the young immigrant communities . . . it will be a complete waste of time.''

Tracy Westen of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said online balloting could increase overall voter turnout among a huge chunk of the electorate: those who intend to vote but don't. ``(People) pledge to themselves they will vote and something comes up and they don't get around to it,'' Westen said. Many work late or forget to apply for an absentee ballot.

About 70 percent of adults were registered for the 1996 election, yet only about 50 percent actually cast votes, Westen said. If Internet voting were available, the 20 percent who didn't make it to the polls could be more likely to vote, he said.

18- to 25-year-olds
Digital elections could also boost participation among plugged-in 18- to 25-year-olds who grew up with PalmPilots, PCs and pagers, Westen said. That age group has the lowest rate of registration statewide.

``If voting became something you do online, they're going to be more open to it,'' he said. ``That's where they live.''

But California, so often a national trendsetter, may be a little late. In November 2000, five states will allow overseas military personnel to vote over the Internet using digital certificate technology as part of a pilot project developed by the Department of Defense, said Polly Brunelli, director of the federal voting assistance program. The states are Texas, Florida, Utah, Missouri and South Carolina.

In California, Jones' 12-member committee will probably issue recommendations in the fall of 1999 about if, and how, an online voting project could be done.

Jones hopes to recruit technology experts, election officials, grass-roots political organizations and legal experts to join the committee, which will probably hold its first meeting in September.

Silicon Valley role
``We want to have an aggressive outreach program to Silicon Valley companies that wish to participate,'' said Jones, who is running for re-election this fall. ``We will never know unless we bring together the experts to determine how it might be done.''

It's too early to estimate how much it would cost to set up a digital voting system, officials said.

Jones' task force will pick up where a failed state bill would have left off. Last fall, Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the bill, which would have also created a task force to study a ``digital electoral system'' for voting, registering and signing petitions. He cited security concerns.

But observers say partisan politics could be another factor.

Republicans and Democrats will probably be concerned about the party affiliations of voters who might be drawn in by a new electronic voting system. Similar legislation in other states, including Minnesota and Utah, has also been shot down, in part due to opposition from some Republicans, legislators in both states said.

San Mateo County residents already can get election results, learn how to become a candidate and seek an absentee ballot form on the Internet. The non-profit California Voter Foundation has been providing online voter guides since 1994.

Voting over the Internet is a logical next step, said San Mateo County's Slocum, who's raised the idea in speeches and articles. ``It has the possibility to make things easier for me as a registrar of voters, and . . . easier for the voter.''