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.

February Table of Contents