LOS ANGELES -- The day when citizens can cast votes with the click of a mouse probably isn't far off. But for now,states trying to implement Internet voting systems are finding that unpredictable human behavior -- not technology -- is the greatest impediment.
This week, the U.S. Justice Department approved the world's first binding Internet election, to take place in Arizona on Mar. 11 during the Democratic primary. But a U.S. District Court judge has the final word on whether a lawsuit filed by a voting rights group can quash the e-voting experiment.
In Louisiana, Republicans ditched an Internet primary after the issue sparked fierce political infighting.
And California officials backed away from cyber-voting due to a different kind of manmade obstacle -- hacking.
Last week the California Internet Voting Task Force released a 54-page report emphasizing how susceptible online voting would be to computer viruses and to fraud caused by hackers. The 34-member panel, comprised of civic leaders, technology experts and political scientists, had undertaken the first such study at the state government level.
"Technology threats to the security, integrity and secrecy of Internet ballots are significant," the report said in part. "At this time, it would not be legally, practically or fiscally feasible to develop a comprehensive remote Internet voting system."
E-ballot advocates claimed that the convenience and ubiquity of the Internet would increase voter turnout, an assertion the California Internet Voting Task Force challenged.
It pointed out that the federal Motor Voter Act of 1993 was supposed to make voting simpler and boost voter participation by tying voter registration to getting a driver's license, but voter turnout has actually fallen since the program began.
Politics as usual forced Louisiana Republicans to scrap an Internet caucus planned for last month.
Conservative state GOP members opposed the primary because they feared their more moderate colleagues would be drawn to Internet voting, Louisiana State University political science professor Wayne Parent said.
When the state GOP's executive committee attempted to vote on the matter in June, dissension reigned and the Internet voting plan was killed. Party chairman Mike Francis dismissed several party leaders who supported the Internet primary and changed door locks at party headquarters.
Dewitte Hall, the party member who proposed the Internet primary, announced he would stop campaigning for the idea because of the intra-party rift it created.
Arizona is finding that concerns about the so-called digital divide still threaten the chances of Internet ballots being cast in the state's March 11 Democratic primary.
Party officials say online voting will increase voter participation and reduce election costs by eliminating some polling places. Opponents say the plan is unfair to those lacking Internet access and would force them to travel longer distances to fewer polling stations.
A lawsuit filed Jan. 21 by the Virginia-based Voting Integrity Project alleges that voting by computer would hurt minorities and the poor.
"A large number of voters, especially minority voters, lack computers or access to the Internet," said Olivia Lizarraga-Bussey, an Arizona plaintiff in the lawsuit. "Our voices will not be heard like others'."
Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Mark Fleisher defended the voting system, saying the party has worked with minority legislators and the state's Indian tribes to ensure minority involvement. And Fleisher's party has pledged to put more polling places in minority communities.
Even though the Justice Department gave a green light to Arizona's Democrats on Feb. 24, their e-voting plan could still be derailed by a U.S. District Court judge, who's expected to issue a ruling next week.
Still, there's a good probability that Internet voting will eventually become commonplace. The Department of Defense is moving forward with a pilot program that lets 250 overseas and out-of-state military personnel vote by Internet in November.
And at a recent symposium on Internet voting cosponsored by the Brookings Institute and Cisco Systems, several panelists said that once a state pulls off an election where Internet votes are cast, the public will likely be more receptive to the concept.
Jim Adler, founder and president of VoteHere.net, a firm often mentioned by states interested in online voting, participated in the symposium. So did California Gov. Gray Davis, New York Gov. George Pataki and Texas Director of Elections Ann McGeehan.
"I am convinced that within five to seven years, Americans will be casting their ballots on the Internet as easily as they buy stock on e-Trade today," Davis said. "We're not there yet, but we're making progress."