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Lost in Cyberspace

Online voting: Only question is when

This article was originally published on March 7, 2000 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

With the presidential primaries in full swing, two issues are coming together into a congruence of sorts: concern over the continuing decline in the number of citizens who bother to vote, and an increasing curiosity about whether online voting could help to stem that trend.

For surely voting from your computer is easier than going to a polling place, often waiting in line, and then standing in a booth. For those very reasons, mail-in ballots have become increasingly popular as citizens decide they'd rather take their time in the comfort of their own home when exercising their democratic duty.

But online voting would be significantly cheaper than mail-in ballots, and perhaps even less of a bother for voters (who generally have to fill out an application in order to get an absentee ballot).

There are technological considerations regarding online voting, of course. For a democratic republic to function properly, the electoral system must not only function without (or at least, with a minimum of) fraud, but must also have the public's confidence that the system is honest and working.

While these concerns are valid, it still seems that if we can make credit card transactions secure enough to generate a new multibillion-dollar online economy, then surely we can make online voting secure enough to conduct our elections.

Arizona's Democratic primary on March 11 is scheduled to use online voting in addition to traditional paper ballots, although opponents have filed a lawsuit asking a court to block the online voting. And various party caucuses across the nation are experimenting with online voting, trying to get a feel for what the technological problems and voter reaction will be.

Last year, California's secretary of state set up an Internet Voting Task Force, which spent 10 months looking at the benefits and drawbacks of online voting.

That task force ended up recommending taking some cautious steps toward online voting in California, including some trial runs. But it also said there were many technical concerns yet to be ironed out, including the recent denial-of-service attacks that shut down some major Web sites.

On a philosophical level, critics right and left make some valid points that need addressing before online voting becomes commonplace. Those on the left make the argument that online voting needs to be equally accessible to all, so that the poor aren't left out of the loop.

Still, that issue can likely be addressed through a technological solution – making public Internet stations available at election time, for instance.

On the right, critics point out that simply increasing the number of people who vote won't do any good if they don't pay attention to what they're voting on. After all, would you rather have 25 percent of the electorate vote after learning about the issues and candidates, or 100 percent, but only a quarter of them having any idea at all what they're doing?

But the Internet changes that scenario, too. With the Internet, you can learn more about all the races on your ballot in one hour than in several hours at the library. You can not only read recent newspaper articles or view television reports, but you can visit the Web pages of the candidates and parties and get their own take on things (a reality the media is only slowly coming to grips with).

With the various search engines, and the hyperlinked nature of the World Wide Web, educating oneself about an election is easier than ever before. A majority of candidates for just about any office above local school board now have their own Web sites laying out their positions. Every political party of any presence at all has a Web site, often with links to those of local candidates. And various activists and special-interest groups, from NOW to the Christian Coalition, will have their voters guides online, offering their outlook on various races.

The Internet holds out the promise of vastly increasing the information available to the average voters, of giving each citizen the tools they need to cast truly informed votes – and to do so in the comfortable, relaxed atmosphere of home.

As more and more homes get personal computers and Internet access, it truly is, as San Diego Registrar of Voters Mikel Haas told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "More of a question when it's going to happen than if."