Arizonans Vote in Their Pajamas

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
March 15 2000 3:00 AM

Arizonans Vote in Their Pajamas

{{Industy Standard Gif#34651}} Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.


{{Slate's Political Roundup#73099}} 

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When I last wrote about online voting in November, I predicted that although the necessary technology was already available, it would be years before Americans would be able to vote from their homes, offices, libraries, and laptops. I was dead wrong. Last week, the Arizona Democratic Party turned its primary into the nation's first legally binding online election. Aside from a few crashed browsers and overloaded servers, the event was a success.

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Turnout was spectacular: After the first of four days of online balloting, the party had already topped its 1996 turnout. All in all, over 37,000 people cast ballots remotely, 20,000 more used mail-in ballots, and another 20,000 actually came to the polls, which were open for one day of in-person voting. This turnout was twice as large as in any other Arizona Democratic primary since 1984 (before that, Arizonans had held nominating conventions).

The Arizona Democratic Party began to plan the online primary only last December, but with the hired help of Election.com, an Internet voting company, it was able to organize the event in only three months. In late February, the party sent out a voter certificate and a PIN to each of the state's 843,000 registered Democrats. E-voting was set for a four-day period: From Tuesday, March 7 through Friday, March 10, voters simply logged onto the voting site with their PIN and two other pieces of personal identification. The information was electronically checked against their voter registration records. So long as the data matched, voters could simply click on their presidential and congressional candidates of choice. Their PINs were then electronically "punched" so that they couldn't be used again. Barring glitches, this process took approximately two minutes of a voter's time. On Saturday, March 11, the official primary day, the exact same system was mounted on public computer terminals that were used in place of traditional voting machines at polling places. Paper ballots were also available for the technology-averse.

Some Internet voters did encounter technical difficulties. Democrats whose voter registration records were outdated never got their PINs through the mail (they were allowed to obtain their PINs and vote in person on Saturday). The party initially hooked up a paltry 12 phone lines, which quickly became jammed. Older versions of Netscape didn't support the voting program and crashed. But these sorts of snafus are common to any new Web-based service. Election officials' worst fears—hacking, mass vote-robbing, downed servers, corrupted data, not-so-secret balloting—weren't realized.

The biggest shadow on the election was cast by the Voting Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization that sued the Arizona Democratic Party for discriminating against poor and minority voters, who are statistically less likely to be wired than their white and Asian peers (for more on the "digital divide," see the Commerce Department's " Falling Through the Net"). Even though Attorney General Janet Reno vetted the Arizona primary for compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Voting Integrity Project's lawyers argued that remote (e.g., non-polling-place) online voting constitutes a "version of the literacy test" once used to keep black voters away from the polls. VIP failed to win a temporary injunction to stop the primary from taking place but is now suing in federal court to void the election results. The organization says it will initiate similar suits against other states that attempt to experiment with online elections.

In comparison with the technological excitement of the primary, the political results were a snooze. Al Gore won by nearly a 4-to-1 margin, a victory aided by Bill Bradley's exit from the race halfway through the online balloting period. The foregone conclusion meant that the Arizona primary didn't answer the most tantalizing question about online voting, which is how the resulting expansion in voter participation and the changed composition of the electorate will influence election outcomes. Arizona Democrats nearly tripled their participation from 1996. Imagine what could happen in their next presidential primary, when even greater numbers of voters will be online and when the technology will be far more familiar.

Arizona's rise in voter turnout also suggests that primaries will be Webbified much more quickly than general elections. The greatest obstacle to widespread implementation of online voting is each party's fear that the resulting surge in participation will benefit the other. In all but the most hotly contested primaries, this is a non-issue. No one knows what effect an Arizona-like increase in turnout could have on a general election. Are Democrats as Web-savvy as Republicans? Are computer users more likely to support a tax cut or oppose abortions? Current politicians, elected the old-fashioned way, may not be eager to find out.

Jodi Kantor is a New York Times reporter and the author of The Obamas.

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