Dot-Com Firms See Polls in Their Future

Dot-Com Firms See Polls in Their Future<@VM>A Political Debate: Will E-Voting Lift the Turnout?

John Chambers

By Steve LeSueur, Staff Writer

Two small companies think online voting will help make democracy work, and pay, too.

Election.com Inc. and VoteHere.net are first out of the gate to offer Internet voting solutions to the public sector, a market that industry officials peg at $2 billion in the United States and more than double that worldwide.

VoteHere.net of Bellevue, Wash., already has conducted Internet voting tests in Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Washington, and Jan. 24 provided online voting services for three Alaska districts in their Republican straw poll. In this poll, 35 out of 56 registered Republicans voted over the Internet.

The most ambitious online voting project will occur next month when the Arizona Democratic Party holds its presidential primary using the services of Garden City, N.Y.-based Election.com. Party officials expect a turnout of up to 50,000 voters, more than four times the number that voted in the party's last presidential primary.

"The No. 1 benefit of Internet voting is more people vote and democracy works better," said Joe Mohen, chief executive officer of Election.com. The cost of running elections could be reduced as much as 50 percent by Internet voting, he said.

Neither Mohen nor Arizona Democratic officials would reveal the size of Election.com's contract.

Although other Internet companies reportedly are preparing to enter the contest to facilitate online voting in the public sector, it is uncertain whether or how some of the big systems integrators will play.

"Internet-based voting is at a proof-of-concept stage, and most integrators don't enter the market at that stage," said Tom Davies, senior vice president for Current Analysis, a Sterling, Va., firm that provides market and business intelligence.

Systems integrators could be needed to integrate the new voting systems with existing government systems and business processes, said Brian Cunningham, who heads up KPMG Consulting's government account in Florida. Cunningham is watching with interest the various pilot projects throughout the country. "I think there's a role for everybody," he said.

Top government and industry officials touted the benefits of Internet voting at a Jan. 20 symposium sponsored by the Brookings Institution, an independent public policy think tank in Washington.

John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif., predicted the "vast majority of states" will have Internet voting by the next presidential election in 2004.

California Gov. Gray Davis (D) largely agreed, saying, "I am convinced that within five to seven years Americans will be casting their ballots on the Internet just as easily as they can buy a stock on E-Trade today."

The Department of Defense and several states are conducting a small pilot project that will allow some military personnel to cast absentee ballots over the Internet, and President Clinton Dec. 17 asked the National Science Foundation to fund a one-year study of Internet voting.

But Davis and others also said governments must move carefully to ensure the security and integrity of the voting process, a warning echoed by others.

"If something goes wrong, you can't rerun a national election," said John Seibel, president of TrueBallot Inc., a small Bethesda, Md.-based company that runs elections for unions, associations and other private-sector organizations. TrueBallot intends to adopt Internet voting, but Seibel questions whether Internet voting is appropriate for the public sector.

Governments and their online providers must maintain and protect huge databases of private voter information that represent a "large bull's eye" for hackers and saboteurs seeking to influence or disrupt an election, he said.

Mohen, however, contends that his company's online elections actually improve the security of elections because they impose a regimen and a process that he claims is more reliable than the often casual handling of voter registration and accountability at many polling locations throughout the nation.

In Arizona, for example, Democratic party members were sent letters with a personal identification number. Before voting, a voter must go to a secure Web site and provide the PIN and some personal information, such as name, mailing address and the last four digits of his Social Security number, in order to obtain a digital signature that allows that person to vote.

Democratic party members can then vote from home, office or any other Internet site during the four days before the March 11 primary. Those who wait until March 11 to vote must go to the public polling locations, where they will vote either by traditional methods or over the Internet.

Arizona's Democratic presidential primary, however, faces opposition from the Voting Integrity Project of Arlington, Va., a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the integrity of elections. The organization Jan. 21 filed a voting rights lawsuit to block Internet voting, claiming minorities and poor citizens do not have equal access to the Internet.

Arizona party officials expressed confidence the lawsuit will not prevail, because their project is putting computers in community centers, public libraries, tribal administration offices and other places to increase minority turnout.

"More people will be able to vote because of Internet voting," said Cortland Coleman, interim executive director for the Arizona Democratic Party.

Election.com was formed in February 1999, and has grown to 50 employees from only 17 last June, said Mohen. Most of the company's business has been in the private sector, where it has conducted elections for organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Inc., and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mohen said his company will conduct several hundred elections in the United States and abroad during the next year, and that he expects the number of employees to grow to at least 100.

VoteHere.net was founded in 1996 to supply secure cryptography products for the Internet, an expertise that led to online voting solutions. The company is focused largely on the public sector, but will also provide private-sector solutions, said Christy Adkinson, director of marketing. "VoteHere.net's system is technically ready to conduct legally binding elections," said Adkinson.

Many experts think the private sector will take the lead in Internet voting, while governments address issues such as security and privacy, the digital divide and the statutory changes required to allow online voting.

"The public sector is not quite ripe for Internet voting," said Scott Flood, president of iBallot Ltd. of Manchester, N.H. His company, which rolled out its online voting solution in December, is targeting the private sector until the government market takes hold.

"It's going to happen," said KPMG's Cunningham
regarding Internet voting in the public sector, "but it's going to take time for everyone to become comfortable with the process."

John Mohen

By Steve LeSueur

Internet voting in public elections probably is inevitable, but will it actually boost participation by the nation's voters?

Proponents of Internet voting hope it will reverse the steady decline in voter participation rates. In the 1996 general election, for example, only 54 percent of the eligible population voted, the lowest general election turnout since the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting data in 1964, when nearly 70 percent of eligible adults voted.

"All the elections we've been involved with and all the reports I've seen indicate an increase in voter response as a result of Internet voting," said Scott Flood, president of iBallot Ltd., a new online voting company in Manchester, N.H.

Some worry, however, that online voting will further disconnect people from democracy's communal tradition of voting at central polling locations, causing even greater voter apathy. Many states, such as Texas, have tried to make voting more convenient by allowing people to vote at other places besides polling locations, such as grocery and merchandise stores. But this has not increased voter turnout.

"Our voting rates have gone down just like every other state in the country," said Ann McGeehan, deputy assistant secretary of states in the Texas elections division.

Internet voting also could alienate minorities and those who do not have access to computers and the Internet, said Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, president of the League of Women Voters, a Washington-based organization that encourages participation in government and elections.

"Internet voting may not increase participation, but it could decrease it," she said.

But this view misses the impact of the Internet on business and society, said Joe Mohen, chief executive officer for Election.com Inc. "The Internet is all about inclusion," he said.

Mohen contends that it is not apathy that keeps people from voting, but busy schedules and hectic lives, especially among working parents. His argument is supported by a 1996 post-election survey by the Census Bureau, which found that time constraints on voters, including demands made by employers, are the single biggest reason given by citizens for not voting.

"If you could vote from work or home, you would," Mohen said. "We're not the problem, we're the solution."

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