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?
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."
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 the names of the remaining candidates. The ballot, when returned to Florida, will be protected using public and private key encryption.
So far 12 of 67 counties in Florida are participating. Rancourt approached six counties when he was devising the plan -- selected because of the large percentage of military residents -- and another six counties volunteered for the program after it was announced in late October. "The reception was positive," he said. "The sense I have is that the counties felt this is inevitable and it was better to get in on the ground floor."
That ground floor, however, may experience some tremors before everything is running smoothly.
Theory and practice often are different creatures, acknowledged Rancourt, who will oversee the Internet voting system. "We have firmly stated that if the technology and security isn't comfortable, then we won't go ahead with the plan," he said. "We won't compromise the integrity and security of our voting system. Florida has one of nation's best voting system testing procedures, and that standard will apply. By July we will know if we can do it, and I believe we can. But I won't hold my head in shame if we can't. We won't risk the integrity and security of the vote. We're talking about casting a ballot, and there's nothing more sacred in the voting process."
Florida's Not Alone
Florida isn't the only jurisdiction looking into Internet voting. The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), run by the Pentagon to encourage military personnel to vote, is examining the Internet as an option for requesting and returning absentee ballots. Currently, registering to receive an absentee ballot from a state or territory is done through the mail, but the FVAP Web site does provide registration forms in Portable Document Format (PDF) files that can be printed, completed and mailed to the appropriate agency.
Costa Rica also is intending to hold elections on the Internet next February to increase voter turnout and reduce the cost of the electoral process. The Central American nation requires every citizen to vote, but only about 65 percent go to the polls. The Center for Information Law and Policy, sponsored by the Villanova University School of Law and the Chicago-Kent College of Law, is advising the Costa Rican government on the experiment, which will be the first test of a national election held online. If it works, paper ballots may be eliminated in favor of cyberspace voting by the 2002 elections.
Rancourt isn't predicting that fate for paper ballots in Florida, though he does believe Internet voting will become part of the normal election process. "To expand beyond what we're doing now will need the state legislature to weigh in and say if this is something they want to do," he said. "It may have long-term social and political ramifications, so there are big-picture issues that need to be debated."
While Rancourt is pleased that Florida is assuming the lead in using technology in the electoral process, he confesses to a preference for the social gathering element in elections. "I don't personally have any interest in voting on the Internet," he said. "I like the old fashioned way of going to the polls and seeing my neighbors, but I think government must adapt."
For information on state and national digital signature laws, see .
James Evans is the author of "Law on the Net" and "Government on the Net," which are guides to online legal and government resources.
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