Eruption Over E-Voting in Arizona

Eruption Over E-Voting in Arizona

Eruption Over E-Voting in Arizona

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Dec. 17 1999 3:30 AM

Eruption Over E-Voting in Arizona

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Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

It's too early to know whether Bill Bradley or Al Gore will win the Arizona Democratic Party primary on March 11, 2000. But if the election goes according to plan, almost every voter in the primary will make worldwide history by casting a ballot over the Internet.

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This month, the party agreed to become the first political organization anywhere on the globe to hold a legally binding election over the Internet. And whether voting from home or a local schoolhouse, most of Arizona's anticipated 20,000 to 40,000 voters will use the Net to vote.

The development disturbs some voter education groups. At least one is considering legal action to stop the primary. "I'm very troubled that a public election is going to occur with an untried, unproven technology," said Deborah Philips, who studies online voting issues for the Voting Integrity Project. Philips said that she has spoken to Washington-based election law attorney M. Miller Baker about pursuing legal responses to the party's decision to use Net voting.

Baker confirmed that he is "looking at" the possibility of suing the Arizona party. "We have grave doubts whether an election by this method would comport with minimal constitutional requirements for a fraud-free election."

Regardless of whether a lawsuit is filed, Arizona's planned primary demonstrates that online voting has moved rapidly from a controversial theory to a real business. According to one estimate, there are over half a million public elections in the United States every year. That creates a potential multimillion-dollar market for companies providing voting services.

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Arizona Democratic Party officials have hired Votation.com, a Garden City, Long Island-based firm which is less than a year old. In a separate announcement, Votation.com also disclosed this week that it has received a minority equity investment from VeriSign, the publicly traded digital certification firm based in Mountain View, Calif.

Neither the officials nor Votation.com would provide a figure for how much the service costs, although Votation.com President Mel Schrieberg, who has handled many elections for labor unions and nonprofit groups, says that organizations using it "save substantially on postage and paper."

Indeed, the Arizona Democratic Party will use Internet ballots not just for remote voters, but even at polling places. "We'll have paper ballots [at polling places] for those who are afraid to use the Net, mostly because of unfamiliarity," says Arizona state party chairman Mark Fleisher. "But I would guess that 95 percent of the ballots cast statewide will be over the Internet."

Remote Internet voters will, like those using absentee ballots, have a slightly wider voting window than those going to physical locations. The Net "polls" will be open from 12:01 a.m. on Friday, March 10, until 7:01 p.m., Saturday, March 11, when the physical polling booths will close as well.

Both the state party and Votation.com downplay any concerns about potential voter fraud. According to the company, voters will be able to verify their identity using their date of birth and a digital signature. Critics point out, however, that neither the Federal Election Commission nor the state of Arizona has certified any standards for Internet voting.

Although Arizona Democrats would probably be the largest group affected by any potential Net voting fraud or security breach, the campaigns for Bill Bradley and Al Gore would also presumably be affected. If, however, the Gore campaign is worried, they're not saying so publicly. "We view anything that helps expand participation in the electoral process as a positive development," says Ben Green, director of Internet operations, Gore 2000. The Bradley campaign declined to provide a comment for this story.