Issue 215, December 12, 2000  

Fear And Loathing: The Election Process

By Stephen M. Lawton

      As I write this, a week after the general election, the decision as to whom will be the next president is still in doubt. What concerns me is that by the time you read this, there still might not be resolution of this question.
      There are those who say that the best way to run an election is to vote electronically over the Internet. That way, votes from citizens abroad can be tallied at the same time as those from people here at home. Personalized smart cards (a state ID card?) could be employed to activate voting machines. While I am a strong proponent of using the Internet for the dissemination of information and for e-business, I just as strongly am opposed to using it for voting. One needs to look no further than Florida for the reasons why.
      For a moment, let's say that instead of paper ballots, we had a computer-based system with a touch screen (like the bank's ATM machine) or stylus that "marked" the ballots. Such a system might not be any fairer to the elderly or infirm who have trouble marking a paper ballot, so where's the benefit? With a paper ballot, an election official can view the intent of the voter. With a fully electronic ballot, once it's "punched," there is no paper trail to indicate if that was the voters' intent or indeed, their choice.
      Columnist Larry Magid this month discusses the election from the PC perspective, as well as suggesting his own balloting method — a modified version of the touch screens used in Riverside County. The system, he notes, could also print out the voter's choices, which could be hand-counted should the need arise. Eureka! A paper trail!
      If we go the touch-screen approach, I'd prefer a system that presents a screen to voters that lists all their choices and requires them to press a final button to confirm their votes, or lets them go back and make changes before confirming.
      That said, I still haven't stated my biggest fear of voting by Internet: fraud. If the Pentagon and Microsoft computer networks aren't secure from hackers, what's to make you think that thousands of local election networks would be? Consider the possibility of someone stealing the Web logs to match votes to IP addresses. I can just imagine a precinct with 10,000 voters that tallies 100,000 "votes" for a candidate. Can't happen? Want to bet?
      Another systemic change could improve the process. Rather than voting on a workday, elections could be held over a weekend, allowing 48 hours to vote. Not only would that increase participation, it would also eliminate the early calling of states by network newscasts.
      Elections should be simple and clear, not necessarily expedient. Call me old fashioned, but I still believe in the politically correct adage: One voter, one vote.

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