Cybereye | Online balloting: The final frontier

Last week's national elections went remarkably smoothly, given the large turnout and the concerns about some of the electronic voting equipment state and local communities have adopted. But even without the controversy of the past two presidential elections, the current ad hoc system is showing some strain.

If we are to encourage fuller participation in our democracy, it is unrealistic to think that a system administered by a handful of harried officials and sustained by untrained laymen working one or two days a year can continue to support an increasing voter turnout.

I propose a crash program to find a way to use the power of the Internet for voting.

Don't get me wrong. I mean no disrespect for the thousands of citizens who volunteer their time to man the polls for 16 hours a day or more during elections. But there is a limited pool of labor from which to draw those volunteers, and it is unrealistic to expect them to be well-trained for a complex job that they do for only one or two days every two years. That the system works at all is a tribute to their dedication and hard work.

Even when things go smoothly, waits of an hour or more to vote are not uncommon if there is a high turnout. That is not much of a hardship compared with the rigors and dangers involved in voting in some other countries, but for many people without flexible schedules, it can be a burden. What was considered a large turnout for this year's presidential election still involved only about 60 percent of eligible voters. If we were to bring out the other 40 percent, the present system would be overwhelmed ' and nearly everyone agrees that we should do what we can to bring out that 40 percent.

I don't think the Internet currently is a viable medium for conducting an election. It was not developed with security in mind. Identity management, which would be a key element of online voting, is still fragmented and complex at both the front and back ends of systems. And the current endpoint technology used for electronic voting is rife with security issues, even when it is not connected to a network.

But the potential power of networked information technology is too great not to harness it for democracy if we can. The past 30 years have demonstrated the incredible ability of the lone geek and the profit-driven corporation to come up with innovations and discoveries, even if they do tend to create as many problems as they solve. Why not adopt online voting as a goal and apply our best minds to reaching it?

Online voting isn't the only solution. Extending the traditional process over several weeks is gaining popularity and is a good idea. But it requires finding volunteers to man the polls for two weeks instead of a couple days, which can be a major logistical challenge. Absentee or mail-in voting is another alternative, but you still have the problem of identity management, along with the problem of distributing and receiving ballots in a timely manner. And I don't believe everyone wants to give up the communal experience of going to a local polling place and casting a vote with neighbors.

Being able to vote online from your home computer, laptop PC or cell phone could be a valuable addition to those and other alternatives, making it more convenient for millions of people to vote without adding to the burden of traditional polling places. I don't expect that approach to be feasible for the 2012 elections and maybe not even for 2016. But it certainly is something worth shooting for.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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