Be wary of Net voting

Thomas R. Temin

Online voting is on the boards in several states'and it looks like no part of civic life is left untouched by the Internet.

A point to ponder for election officials'and for the public'is whether the Internet as a medium for transmitting votes adds value to the voting process. Some officials estimate it will save money otherwise spent on printing ballots. Others think online voting will increase voter turnout, just as online voter registration'along with motor vehicle registration that's tied to voter registration'has caused more people to sign up.

I think both lines of thought are flawed.

Here's an analogy. Starbucks Corp. of Seattle recently experienced a precipitous drop in its stock price, even though its sales of coffee through its ubiquitous outlets was rising, as were profits on those sales. So what was the matter?

To a person, the analysts cited the company's Internet efforts. Management was so preoccupied with branching into online sales of coffee, furniture and other products that people who recommend stocks were afraid company officials were taking their eyes off the important ball. As one explained on television, when buying a share of Starbucks, are you buying a solid and growing coffee retail business or are you buying a shaky, unfocused Internet effort?

To me, the Starbucks experience signals an end of the euphoric'you might say hysterical'Internet-at-any-cost frenzy.

Governments at all levels have spent the last three years or so intensively moving services to online environments, as chronicled in the pages of this newspaper. Many have made wonderful strides in offering service to the citizens via the Web. In fact, there's a long way to go. We should ask ourselves if applying the Internet to elections is a result of being too caught up in Internet-think. Automation, such as using PCs in place of traditional voting machines, adds value to the election process. The Internet does not.

For one thing, voters will still have to go to polling places; under current scenarios they wouldn't vote from home. And using the Internet'as opposed to voting machines, voting PCs or paper ballots where security issues are well understood'would create a whole new set of security and results-integrity dangers.

As for the argument that online voting could increase participation, that, too, is doubtful. Voter apathy derives from attitudes toward government itself. Wrongly, perhaps, those who fail to vote figure it doesn't matter for whom they vote. Using the Internet won't change that.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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