When it comes to Internet voting, Gov. George Pataki of New York and Gray Davis of California have a similar message: Proceed with caution.
"We want to accelerate the pace of Internet voting," Davis said. But he stipulated that "we need to develop a secure, reliable system" before offering voters online ballots. Davis predicted that Californians would be voting via Internet within five to seven years, though some Internet executives expect it to come a lot sooner.
Speaking via satellite to a symposium on the future of Internet Voting co-sponsored by the Brookings Institution and Cisco Systems Inc. last week, both governors cited progress in moving forward with voting online in New York and California. Pataki said electronic signatures are now binding in New York, and California passed a digital signature law in 1995.
The governors were joined by a panel of state and federal election officials, voting software providers and representatives of high-tech business and advocacy groups who came together to discuss the mechanics and dilemmas of Internet voting. There was no agreement on exactly how or when Internet voting will be widely available, but most echoed Pataki's statement that "the thrust will not be from the federal government but from the states."
States are just getting their feet wet with online voting. Alaska held a Republican Party straw poll Monday. Arizona is scheduled to hold the first binding election with online votes, a Democratic primary, March 7 through March 10, though a federal lawsuit was filed by the Virginia-based Voting Integrity Project last Friday in order to block the election. The group says that a large number of voters, especially minorities and the poor, would be hurt by lack of access to the Internet.
Other trials are underway. The Department of Defense is conducting a pilot program with 250 voters from four states: Florida, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. These voters, most of whom are military personnel living overseas, will cast online ballots in the 2000 presidential election.
John Chambers, panelist and CEO of Cisco Systems, predicted that the vast majority of states will have Internet voting options by 2004.
Panelist Anthony Corrado, a Colby College government professor, said that in addition to implementing laws and election rules for Internet voting, states would also need to take up the charge of making sure the "digital divide" doesn't widen and that Internet voting does not discourage those who don't have access to a computer or aren't computer-savvy.
"States will have to get involved in expanding access," Corrado said. "It is appropriately a state-level responsibility."
While training for the computer-illiterate may be necessary if elections someday go to an all-online format, Pataki doubted that would happen. "Don't expect Net voting to replace going to the ballot box," he said. "I don't think anyone thinks it will replace voting at the firehouse."