Like most good ideas, it was obvious once someone came up with it.

When Florida Secretary of State Sandra Mortham announced last October that the state would consider the Internet as a means for voters to cast absentee ballots, her office was suddenly deluged with calls from the media and state government officials across the nation. The response was so large and instantaneous that David Rancourt, Florida's director of the Division of Elections, struggled to answer even part of them.

"There's been a lot of interest in this issue," he said. "We've been encouraged by the level of interest and positive reception it has received."

However, in the case of employing the Internet to vote, it is implementation rather than conception that's been causing all the excitement. Using the Internet to cast ballots has been discussed for years, but nobody ever tried it because of the security problem: How do you guarantee that the recorded vote is the one that was cast and that the person who cast it was the genuine article?

Internet Idea

The struggles of electronic certification have been an obstacle to the commercial growth of the Internet, and they have stymied the embrace of the Internet by the legal, medical and accountancy professions, which require confidentiality. However, innovations in encryption processing and the advent and acceptance of reliable digital signature technology have convinced businesses that monetary transactions in cyberspace are safe. Florida reasoned that, if commerce could trust the Internet's security, why not government?

The idea of Internet voting came from a panel of experts Mortham appointed in 1995 to investigate ways to increase voter turnout, with special emphasis on voting through the mail. The investigation revealed that Florida residents were receptive yet suspicious and concerned about the ease of committing fraud through the mail, so Mortham quickly told the group to expand their horizons and examine all options. The Internet initially wasn't among the options, but voters kept sending e-mail to the panel saying the Internet was the answer.

"The panel's reaction was that the state wasn't ready for it because of security concerns," said Rancourt, "but there's been an explosion of Internet use in the past two years among businesses, libraries and individuals. It's very common now for people of all ages to send e-mail to each other. That was a major factor in turning our interest. Also, our technical advisors were telling us about the amount of business that was being conducted over the Internet. If people were trusting their money over the Internet, then voting could be done too, applying existing technology."

Test Run

Rancourt said two factors endorsed the Internet experiment: Florida's adoption of a digital signature certification standard to verify a person's identity and the state's specific electoral structure.

Starting this summer, within a two-month period, there will be a primary, a runoff and general elections. Absentee voters currently can request and submit ballots by mail, but after voting in the primary, they are at the mercy of the postal service for receiving and sending subsequent ballots. That's particularly true for Floridians living overseas, including a large number in the military, who are dependent upon the whims of the international postal system.

"The time constraints involved in Florida's unique system, with three elections in a two-month period, demand creative uses of technology to allow these voters full participation in our electoral process," Mortham said, adding that the needs of military voters should receive extra attention. "Internet absentee voting will guarantee that the men and women defending our democracy have the opportunity to fully participate in it."

The plan is to start Internet voting with the runoff election. Overseas voters will request authorization to vote at a special Web site and, when approved, will receive a virtual absentee ballot containing