Electronic voting has a bad rap it can't seem to shake. Across the country e-voting machines are regarded skeptically at best. Many citizen activists and some elections officials have re-embraced paper as the best and most accurate way to vote.
In May 2009, the city and county of Honolulu tried a different approach for electing members of its Neighborhood Boards. Instead of e-voting machines, residents voted either online or by phone. No paper ballots were available. The all-digital election -- which may be the first of its type in the United States -- didn't come about because the government sought to advance technology. The move was driven by a more pedestrian reason: budget cuts.
Although participation was low, city officials said eliminating paper ballots slashed typical election costs by half.
In Oahu, 33 Neighborhood Boards form the Neighborhood Commission. Those elected to the commission serve their constituents by advising other government entities about what is going on in Oahu's neighborhoods.
Bryan Mick, community relations specialist for the Neighborhood Commission Office, said the agency had to come up with a more efficient way to hold its elections.
"We did this at the direction of the City Council," Mick said. "They cut our budget to encourage us to go this route."
But Mick had been toying with the idea since he was brought onboard five years ago. A vendor called Kids Voting USA had caught Mick's attention. For eight years, Kids Voting USA has organized digital mock elections for local schools. The mock election results happen to mirror closely the actual election results, so Mick approached the company about crafting a pilot project for the Neighborhood Commission Office.
"They said it would be pretty simple to adapt software [for the Neighborhood Commission elections]," Mick said, "so we did a pilot project with them where we still did the paper ballots, but you also got an online code that you could use. They were integrated so if you did one, it negated the other. We scanned everything that came back in, and if you'd already voted online a red light would flash and we'd put that one aside."
Satisfied with the pilot project, the Neighborhood Commission Office revisited it when the City Council's budget ruling came down. But the office needed to partner with an organization that could quickly roll out a Web and telephone interface that was secure enough to put voters and local officials at ease.
The office found a San Diego-based company called Everyone Counts, which for the last decade, helped conduct digital elections in the UK and for military personnel and expatriates. The office hired Everyone Counts and began planning for a groundbreaking election.
"It's the first [election] in the U.S. that was all-digital," said Lori Steele, head of Everyone Counts. "That means they offered our computer solution and our telephone voting solution, and there was not a paper channel provided."
Much of what has held back e-voting -- and by association, digital elections -- is the issue of security. E-voting machines and their lack of paper trail, as well as proprietary code, have earned the reputation -- justly or not -- of being easy targets for hackers. Steele said her company's security protocol is like the two-key system required to launch a nuclear missile. In fact, Steele describes the security as "military grade."
"When we open our election, [password] keys are provided to a group of election officials," she said. "That can be, depending on the government and what their election rules are, people from different parties or people in the election office, or a combination thereof. The
election begins, the voters vote, and each of the ballots is encrypted and stored securely. At the end of the election, the encrypted ballots are removed from the Internet and put on a clean PC. But they still aren't accessible by any one individual until each of the election officials comes together in a quorum and provides their unique passwords to the system. That allows for the decryption and counting of the votes. At the end of the election, the voter can verify that their vote was received and counted by going to a special Web site."
Everyone Counts also offers what it calls its Open Code Advantage. Steele said anyone who requests to do so can audit the software's code.
Three individuals had an encryption key in the Honolulu election, according to Mick. One representative was from the Neighborhood Commission Office, another was from the city clerk's office and the third was from the League of Women Voters.
Each voter received a mailer containing a unique nine-digit password. This password, combined with the voter's last four Social Security number digits, provided access to either a visual Web ballot or an audio touchtone phone ballot.
The Neighborhood Commission Office's solution sounds simple and would seemingly have encouraged large numbers of people to vote. However, according to Oahu news station KITV, voter turnout was down 83 percent from 2007.
Reception to the digital election was "lukewarm," Mick admitted. "Participation rates were low," he said, citing the 10 percent voter turnout. "We don't have a particularly high participation rate even with paper ballots. I would suspect our demographic voter is probably older. I think this kind of bore out that conclusion."
Though turnout was low, there was a bright spot. The all-digital election cost half of the conventional election in 2007 -- about $90,000, according to Mick.
That savings was due partly to the fact that only about a third of the areas had contested races. Had more races been contested, the costs would have escalated, Mick said. "So theoretically it could have been much more expensive," he said. However, Mick pointed out that digital ballots are less expensive to scale up than paper ballots because postage costs "skyrocket" when the number of candidates and voters increases.
So are digital elections ready for a statewide or federal arena?
"When you ask if this is ready for primetime -- federal elections -- the answer is yes," Steele said. But small steps should be taken first, she cautioned. "The main focus should initially be overseas and military voters," she said.
Mick was a bit more conservative in his assessment. "I think it was a step forward technology-wise," he said, adding, "I think the general population is getting more comfortable doing things online."
Whether that includes voting on a larger stage remains to be seen.