WASHINGTON - Wired citizens in a growing number of states can already use their computers to file tax returns, apply for state gaming permits, renew driver's licenses and register their cars online. In the very near future, voters might also find themselves with the ability to cast ballots from their desktops.
On March 17, California became the first state to officially study the possibility, convening a task force to study the efficacy of an Internet voting system. Established under the direction of California Secretary of State Bill Jones, the two-dozen member panel is comprised of state elections officials, technology specialists and political scientists.
In addition to addressing the technical aspects of ensuring secure transmission and tabulation of electronic ballots, the panel will address the larger policy concerns such a system would create.
"Technology and people's expectations are going to force us to deal with these issues," Jones said. "The rest of the country expects California to lead on this."
The California Internet Voting Panel is expected to complete its report by the end of the year and forward its recommendations to the Legislature in anticipation of possible trial runs in the Year 2000 elections.
The panel has split into two informal subgroups, with one group focusing on the technological, security, cost and authentication aspects of the issue. The remaining panel members will address public trust, access, demographics and legal issues.
Discussions will be pursued primarily via email, with the task force expected to convene face-to-face within the next couple of months. A date for the next meeting has not yet been set.
Jones went ahead with the commission even after then-Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a bill to study the issue in 1997. Wilson cited security concerns of an online voting system in his veto message.
"The use of such a system will compromise voter confidentiality and generate significant opportunities for fraud," Wilson wrote. "Although current encryption technology is making advances in providing a more secure environment to prevent tampering by third parties, no one can yet guarantee a completely safe, tamper proof system. Without such a system, a study is premature."
Opinions of Internet Security Experts Vary Widely
"The potential advantages to voting online are significant and we are quickly developing technology to help make this vision a reality. Online voting is likely to have a profound impact on politics as we know it," said Mark Reynolds of iLumin Corporation, a leading Internet company in enforcing and securing electronic transactions. Reynolds is a member of the California panel.
Academic experts are among those more wary of Internet encryption systems and point out that industry figures have an inherent financial interest in promoting online government.
"[Gov. Wilson] is spot-on. Internet voting is a bad idea waiting to happen," said Professor Alberto Segre of the University of Iowa Department of Computer Science. "The problem is that the Internet is inherently insecure. The underlying network technology can't even guarantee your message will be delivered, much less not be tampered with. There are as yet no good, safe protocols to ensure one vote for one voter."
Technical issues of Internet voting aside, activists focus on the Internet as an invaluable tool in expanding both the reach and depth of democracy.
"Politicians are campaigning online, grassroots activists are using email and websites, and e-commerce has become a standard of business," said Don Tapscott of the Alliance for Converging Technologies, a Toronto-based think tank with representatives from industry figures such as IBM and Hewlett Packard and various American and Canadian government agencies.
"We have been studying developments such as these and are convinced that a more fundamental consideration of governance is urgently needed. We must rethink how government does business and provides value through public service," Tapscott said.
Others, though, are skeptical that offering government services on the Internet would attract broader democratic participation.
"The more they start putting services up, the more people will start asking, 'How much are you doing for the unwired? Where does it stop? When there's a T-1 line going into every nursing home?'" C. Richard Neu told the New York Times. Neu is studying the intersection of government and technology for the Rand Corporation.
"Pete Wilson's is such a regressive view. Voting on the internet is less expensive, more participatory, and actually greatly reduces voter fraud," said Kim Alexander of the California Voters Foundation.
Alexander points out that elections offices are currently using technology and hardware over twenty years old. Not moving into the digital age, she said, would be a serious mistake.
Leaving the philosophical debate to others, the United States Department of Defense has established a pilot program in five statesFlorida, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and Utahto allow the six million American citizens overseas, both military and civilian, to cast absentee ballots via the Internet.
Federal Voting Assistance Program Director Polli Brunelli said the transmission of votes through the Internet would be protected by an encryption system being developed by the Department of Defense. The challenge comes in creating a system that not only provides a unique user identity and password, she said, but also makes it impossible to see how that user voted.
The pilot states will test the program in the 2000 general election. Overseas voters will use terminals provided by the government to file ballots in their respective home states; state election offices will use computers with encryption technology to tabulate votes and add the results to the conventional rolls.
The 2000 test will be limited to 50 voters from each state, according to Linda Lunceford, Weber County (Utah) Clerk. While the federal pilot program relies on donated government hardware and encryption systems and could not be expanded to each state's general populace, Lunceford hopes that a successful test will provide the proof needed to convince skeptics.
"It is very logical that once this particular Internet voting system is proven viable, the general public will ask about expansion," Lunceford said. "There are many political hurdles to cross. But demographically, once the younger, more computer-savvy population comes to age, we'll see more pressure to advance."
In recent weeks, Utah has stepped to the fore in efforts to put state services online. Governor Mike Leavitt last week signed the Digital State Act, which requires all state agencies to provide their services online within three years.
Not coincidentally, Utah hosts the Winter Olympics in 2002 and hopes to use the event as a showcase for the state's growing technology sector.
While some states already offer limited services online, Utah has emerged as the most aggressive both in terms of scope of services to be offered and establishing a firm target date for all state agencies.
Already able to obtain hunting licenses and file tax returns online, Utah citizens will be able to do everything from applying for unemployment and welfare benefits to viewing lesson plans and school testing results.
"It's really just an acknowledgement of where we think the economy is going," Leavitt said when signing the bill. "We think this makes us an attractive place."
Utah presents an interesting test case for providing digital services. According to the Governor's office, more than 50 percent of the state's households have computers and almost three-fourths of state residents have access to computers either at home, school, or work.
At the same time, Utah's geography and population dispersal present problems in wiring the entire populace. A caveat in the Digital State Act has created a task force that will address the problem of residents who live in remote areas without direct dial-up access to the Internet.
Utah's drive to put state services online follows its 1995 adoption of the Digital Signatures Act. With this act, the state of Utah became the first legal system in the world to adopt a comprehensive statute enabling electronic transactions through digital signatures.
The goal of the program is to develop and implement a reliable means of secure electronic messaging over unsecured computer networks such as the Internet. The law's backers said it has minimized the incidences of fraud in electronic commerce and established worldwide standards regarding verification and reliability of electronic messages.
The Digital Signature Act has already allowed Utah to become the first state in the nation to sell state bonds online.
Digital signatures enable users to determine who sent a document, identify what document was sent, and determine whether the document has been altered en route.
"A digital signature cannot be forged at all unless the subscriber fails to safeguard his or her private [electronic] key," said Utah Assistant Attorney General Michael D. Wims. "A person is quite powerless to prevent forgery of one's paper signature, but in all but the rarest instances, the subscriber can prevent a forged digital signature."
It is these rarest of instances, however, that must be addressed before state leaders are willing to trust the most fundamental of citizen actionsthe ability to cast a secret and inviolable ballotto be completed online.