"Virtual Voting" Faces Real-World Concerns 

"Virtual Voting" Faces Real-World Concerns 

"Virtual Voting" Faces Real-World Concerns 

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
March 17 2000 3:00 AM

"Virtual Voting" Faces Real-World Concerns 

{{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}} 

Esteemed members of the national press, including "Net Election" contributor Jodi Kantor, have concluded that Internet voting in last week's Arizona Democratic Party primary was a smash success.

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Was it?

It's true, and encouraging, that tens of thousands of people voted online for the first time in a binding election. The technology mostly worked, and a feared "hack attack" did not occur. But before we declare this a great step forward in democracy, it's worth looking at what actually occurred in Arizona.

The media has uncritically parroted the idea that this year's Arizona Democratic vote was three times the total in 1996. This comparison is nearly meaningless: Because Bill Clinton ran unopposed in 1996, of course there was pathetic participation in the primary. Moreover, even this month's "record" turnout in Arizona was about 86,000 votes—a mere 10 percent of the state's registered Democrats.

It's also highly debatable that the increased turnout is due to the convenience of Internet voting. Consider this: Fewer than half of the votes in this "Internet primary"—39,942—actually came through the Internet, either remotely or in polling places. A firm majority of the votes—46,028—was cast on paper ballots, most of which were mailed.

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So why the increased participation? Easy: The get-out-the-vote money came from a private company, Election.com, that hoped to pump up this experiment as a crucial component of its planned IPO.

Remember, the Arizona Democratic Party is a near-moribund institution. Only one of the seven members of Arizona's congressional delegation is a Democrat; three of the state's past four governors have been Republicans. This is not a party with a lot of extra money to spend on electoral niceties such as mailing out ballots, phone-banking, and the like.

Enter Election.com, the 13-month-old Long Island, N.Y.-based company that provided the technology for the Arizona contest. They spent like mad to ensure that this election worked and that the world heard about it. They hired an expensive PR firm, flew a dozen or so staffers to Arizona—some of whom stayed there for weeks—and helped coordinate a network of get-out-the-vote groups flung all over the state.

Both the Arizona Democratic Party and Election.com steadfastly refuse to say how much money this primary cost or who exactly paid for what services. (Presumably, when the party next files with the Internal Revenue Service the numbers will emerge. For now, it's a big Democratic secret.) But there's no question that upward of a million dollars and thousands of working hours were spent by a for-profit company with a strong interest in making this election look good.

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Don't misunderstand: It's great that Election.com worked to stir up Arizona voters, and the company's management seems refreshingly committed to full electoral participation. But for them, this primary functioned as a kind of loss leader. Other states or cities are unlikely to get the same result by simply moving some of their votes to the Net.

More troubling is how quickly Kantor and others have glossed over the question of ensuring equal participation in this race. Internet voting is not intrinsically discriminatory, because adding convenience for wired voters is not necessarily the same as denying convenience for the unwired.

And yet after traveling all around Arizona during the primary period, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Arizonans with home Internet access enjoyed a tremendous voting advantage in this primary. Yes, unwired Arizonans were encouraged to vote at libraries and other community centers scattered around the state. But essentially none did. Several librarians told me that not a single person came to vote by Net during the four-day remote-voting period. By the party's own estimate, 90 percent of the Internet votes were cast by people voting from home or work—and that population is disproportionately white.

And while the physical polling places were meant as the refuge for the unwired, that plan did not go off entirely as planned. At least three of the 124 polling places did not open at all. In Phoenix, I visited two of them myself and guess which neighborhoods they were in?

It's possible that a racial breakdown of mail-in ballots would bring those numbers into balance. (Alas, it seems unlikely that such data will ever become available.) And one certainly can argue that large numbers of blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans didn't participate in the Arizona primary for reasons besides lack of Net access.

But that line of argument will not get very far in election law. The Arizona Democratic Party is legally bound to ensure that all populations have truly equal access to voting. Despite Election.com's stated intentions and despite journalists' willingness to believe, it's far from certain that it happened here.