Public-key encryption will let citizens vote via the Internet

Public-key encryption will let citizens vote via the Internet

Paul Craft, manager of

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

The countdown has begun. The millennial clock is ticking. State and local information technology officials are readying their systems for one special day in 2000.

Nov. 7, election day.

All roads, it seems, lead to the Internet. The Internet has already conquered the voter registration process. Most states offer an online voter registration form a few clicks away from the main Web site, typically at www.state.xx.us. Usually it is a form in Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format that citizens can download, print out, sign and mail in.

Although voting via the Web raises many questions about security, voter fraud and even demographics'would wealthier, computer-literate people alone, for instance, increase their influence in Congress?'many federal and state officials are considering Internet voting.

Internet voter registration is the logical outcome of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the so-called Motor Voter act. The act required that states make voter registration more accessible. States installed voter registration kiosks in Motor Vehicle Department offices, public assistance offices and shopping malls.

Join the team

Other organizations quickly stepped in to offer online voter registration. MCI WorldCom Inc. teamed up with the American Association of Retired Persons of Washington and Rock the Vote of Culver City, Calif., a grassroots organization that promotes voter registration among 18- to 24-year-olds, to create NetVote '98. The online site, at www.netvote98.mci.com, registered 30,000 voters last year, said Greg Blankenship, a spokesman for MCI WorldCom.

Visitors to the site choose a map of their state and see a list of the state's voting requirements and procedures. They fill out a postage-paid Hypertext Markup Language form, print it out, sign it and mail it to their state registration office.

One advantage of the site is that it customizes each form to each state's voting rules, which vary dramatically. North Dakota, for example, has no voter registration at all. Wyoming has same day, at-the-poll registration. Wyoming voters just sign an oath that they are state residents.

But have these efforts to make voter registration quick and easy increased turnout?

No. According to Commerce Department statistics, the percentage of the voting age population that voted for president in 1996 was 48.9 percent, down from 55.1 percent in 1992 and the lowest in any presidential election since 1930. Voter turnout for other elections, such as U.S. representative races, is also low. Louisiana, for instance, posted a 15 percent voter turnout in its 1996 election for a U.S representative.

If it is too much trouble to drive to the poll, park, get out, draw the curtain and pull a lever, would it be easier to point, click and submit a vote? If voting were as easy as ordering best-sellers over the Internet, would more people do it?

Select few

The Defense Department's Federal Voting Assistance Program is sponsoring a small-scale Internet voting program for the 2000 general election. About 6 million Americans abroad'military and civilian'will be able to cast ballots over the Internet from their own PCs or computers provided at special polling installations. The program is limited to citizens of five states: Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.

Paul Craft, manager of voting systems for Florida's Elections Division, says Internet voting could reduce voter fraud. The state is looking at data encryption for the Internet voting program, he said.

'The risk of anyone being able to intercept that voting transaction or break into that code is impossible,' he said. 'The real risk, frankly, is that someone is going to flood the gateway or block the server's ability to receive packets.'

Internet voting would reduce the number of absentee ballots, which increase the potential for voter fraud, Craft said.

'You lose administrative control over those absentee ballots,' he said. Craft does not advocate a vote-from-home program; he thinks Internet votes should be cast from controlled voting places.

Craft cites another benefit of Internet voting: saving money. Florida's electronic voting machines can cost as much as $7,000 per unit. Setting up an Internet voting machine made up of a PC, Web browser and Internet connections would cost about $600 per unit, Craft said.

Even the cost of printing ballots can be astronomical, Craft said. When candidates drop out at the last minute the whole set of ballots must be reprinted, he said. With the Internet, last-minute ballot changes could be made quickly and inexpensively.

California Secretary of State Bill Jones is directing a 24-member panel made up of elections officials, IT specialists and political scientists, which will investigate the possibility of Internet voting. The panel is scheduled to report its findings later this year.

Washington is 'very interested in online voting,' said Dave Elliott, assistant director of elections. Several counties are working with VoteHere.net, a Kirkland, Wash., company, to test Internet voting in high schools.

'The big issue is security,' Elliott said. 'We're looking at public-key infrastructure as a possible way to deal with it, but it's expensive, and you have to make sure people don't loan out their private keys.'

Don Carter, senior vice president of VoteHere.net, said the VoteHere.net software used 1,024-bit public-key encryption.

Bit of time

'Basically it would take 80 thousand quadrillion years before anybody could crack the encryption code with today's computer systems,' Carter said.

'Also, we don't decrypt the voting information, we tally the election with the data encrypted,' he said. 'We never know how people voted, we just know they did vote.'

The main concerns about Internet voting are privacy and authentication, Carter said.

'You don't go behind a curtain when you give a vendor your credit card. There's more at stake in a secret ballot than just money,' he said.

The VoteHere.net system authenticates voters with three layers of identification, Carter said.

First, voters provide something they know, such as their birthdays. Second, they provide something they are given, such as a PIN sent to them by e-mail. Third, they provide information that can be verified biometrically, such as a thumb print or voice.

The company posts a demo of the VoteHere.net system on its Web site at www.votehere.net. There's even space to write in candidates. And because the data is encrypted, nobody will know if you write in the Lone Ranger for president.

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