Election Controversy Raises Prospects for Online Voting

Election Controversy Raises Prospects for Online Voting

Brian Cunningham

By William Welsh, Staff Writer

The Florida election controversy, by highlighting the weaknesses of older election technology such as punch-card voting machines, has boosted the business outlook for Internet companies trying to sell online voting as more efficient and accurate.

Proponents contend that pilot election projects run in Arizona and California have shown online voting has the potential to spur greater voter participation while mitigating some of the problems seen in Florida, where questions have been raised whether all votes were registered and accurately counted.

Online voting companies "have done a good job of pushing the issue by running their pilot programs," said Jeremy Sharrard of Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass.

Despite great strides in technology, industry officials also said much remains to be done to legitimize the concept of online voting, such as addressing concerns about how to identify voters, the sanctity of the secret ballot and the ability to audit results.

Online voting at poll sites and community centers will be used modestly in 2004, but it is too early to predict when the obstacles to remote Internet voting will be surmounted, said Thomas Mann, W. Averell Harriman Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, Washington.

In the aftermath of the election, Forrester Research reported that the tight presidential election and the ballot irregularities that surfaced during the vote counting will accelerate online voting development.

The driving forces for this online voting revolution will be the voters themselves and the technology, according to Forrester Research.

Voters who have become accustomed to purchasing consumer products online from the comfort of their homes eventually will expect to extend this convenience to other aspects of their lives, including voting. And the technology will enable absentee voters to vote in real time and eliminate the delay of processing ballots cast by mail, according to Forrester Research.

VoteHere.net of Bellevue, Wash., which ran online trials for the presidential election in California and Arizona, expects online voting to be approved in 40 states next year, said Jim Adler, VoteHere.net's president and chief executive officer.

VoteHere.net, which is privately held, was founded in 1996 and has 32 employees. The company has three private-sector contracts for first quarter 2001 and is holding discussions with 40 prospective customers, said VoteHere.net's Kerry Alexander. The company would not reveal the value of the signed contracts.

The company does not yet have any contracts signed in the public sector because online voting has not yet been certified in any of the states, said Alexander. Meanwhile, the company is continuing to market pilot elections and is pursuing legislative changes that would make it possible to sign contracts with public-sector entities.

Another company, Election.com of Garden City, N.Y., played a significant part in the November presidential election by providing online services that enabled 700,000 Americans throughout the nation to either register to vote or obtain absentee ballots. Individuals registered to vote or requested an absentee ballot by logging on to the company's Web site or linking to it through partner sites.

The company is forming a separate business unit for public-sector elections to meet the growing demand for online voting this year, particularly among small jurisdictions, said Joe Mohen, Election.com's chief executive officer.

Privately held Election.com was formed in 1999 and has 80 employees. It is currently conducting 23 elections worldwide. The company would not provide the value of those contracts. Customers include the Sierra Club, Arizona Democratic Party and Florida Bar Association.

Adler believes the most logical partners for online voting companies are the systems integrators already immersed in building Web portals at the state and local level that support electronic government, such as Andersen Consulting of Chicago; IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y.; KPMG Consulting LLC of McLean, Va.; and National Information Consortium Inc. of Overland Park, Kan.

VoteHere.net has partnerships with Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., and Compaq Computer Corp. of Houston, both of which have made financial investments in the company.

"Online voting is really just another e-government application, although it requires high levels of security and auditability," said Adler. Consequently, VoteHere.net has designed its online voting application so that it "can live alongside an e-government infrastructure," he said.

The real challenge is not in developing the applications but in dealing with the policy issues and the integration challenges that will surface as online voting becomes a legitimate form of casting ballots, said Brian Cunningham, managing director for KPMG's state of Florida government account.

Although the online voting companies can build and roll out applications very fast, systems integrators also will have to analyze the policy issues for government clients and integrate the technology that will include not only personal computers but also wireless devices, he said.

"I believe there is a tremendous role for large systems integrators, because we're not talking just about the use of technology but about cultural change," Cunningham said.

In response to customer needs, KPMG is building a strategy on how to help governments develop these requirements and resolve these issues, he said.

"We are analyzing the impact that online voting would have on the public so that we can advise government and politicians on the impact of any pilot programs they might want to conduct," said Cunningham.

At this point, however, systems integrators are not completely convinced that online voting is a worthwhile business, and therefore are unlikely to develop it as a separate business line, said Thomas Meagher, vice president of equity research, BB&T Capital Markets, Richmond, Va.

This doesn't mean they are disinterested in the technology or its application, he said. Systems integrators "might pursue it though acquisition," Meagher said.

But don't expect governments to rely solely on online voting, said John Seibel, president of TrueBallot Inc. of Bethesda, Md., a company that conducts elections for private-sector organizations.

Existing processes such as punch cards and touch screens are far from obsolete, and online voting "will have to ride along with them," said Seibel. He said he thinks online voting is a long way from full or even partial funding at this stage.

"[Governments] aren't going to invest money for a unique process that occurs only once every several years," he said.

Advocates contend that online voting has the potential to significantly increase voter turnout. While voter turnout for local elections typically averages 2 percent to 3 percent, online voting might raise it to 20 percent to 30 percent, said Mohen.

Voters in three major counties in Arizona and California were allowed to cast nonbinding ballots online during the November presidential election through a pilot program established by VoteHere.net and Compaq. In California, for example, voters at early polling sites were offered the opportunity to participate in a shadow election that operated in tandem with traditional ballot voting.

Following the online voting trials, VoteHere.net released the results of a voter satisfaction survey, stating:

? 100 percent of voters who used the system found it "easy to use or very easy to use";

? Eight out of 10 voters said they preferred online voting to the current system;

? Sixty-five percent said they would vote from home if they thought the system was secure.

"Many people thought the security of the system was better than what they had been using," said Adler.

Although online voting technology already exists, it won't happen unless there are fundamental changes to the voting process as we know it, Seibel said.

Some people mistakenly believe that the problems that arose in this year's presidential election can be solved with technology, he said.

"It's not a technology issue, but a human factor issue," he said.

Seibel said two hurdles must be overcome for public-sector online voting. First, the government must have a positive way of identifying the voter, such as through biometric identification. Second, it must provide some way to let the voter verify his or her vote.

Online voting "is not e-commerce or e-government," he said. "Unless you want to change the existing view and approach toward elections and make it no longer a secret ballot. ... I am not sure our society will accept biometrics and audit their votes."

Despite these concerns, advocates are moving forward both with the technology and with the political dialogue they hope will eventually bring acceptance and approval of online voting.

A popular scenario envisioned for bringing voting online is to gradually phase it in by making it available first at poll sites in public places before offering it at remote sites such as homes. Some government customers may want a hybrid that combines poll site and remote voting, said Mohen.

But voters who go to poll sites generally prefer to vote using traditional methods rather than using the Internet, he said. "The real value of online voting comes from voting from a remote location," he said.

The states most likely to embrace online voting first are those that already allow voters to cast their ballots by mail, said Adler. And many states will want to offer online voting for certain segments of the population, such as the disabled or the military, he said.

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