Is Online Voting Around the Corner?

Humboldt County Clerk Lindsey McWilliams offers this intriguing view of how information technology will change the way voters will make decisions and cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election - and what counties and the state must do to accommodate demands for faster and more efficient service.

by / May 31, 1995
June 95

Level of Govt: State, Local

Function: Voting

Problem/Situation: Low voter registration and turn-out continue to be a problem in the U.S.

Solution: Online voting system designed to increase participation in elections and make it easier to learn about campaign issues.

Jurisdiction: Humboldt County, Calif.

Vendors: America Online, THX, Epicenter Research, National Voter Outreach, Aristotle

Contact: Lindsey McWilliams 707/445-7503

By Lindsey McWilliams

Clerk of Humboldt County, Calif.

It's a cool, early morning in the year 2008, and I'm getting ready to leave for work and arguing with my children. "Dad, why do we have to go to school when we can videoconf with the Princeton kids on multiprocessor array systems?"

I remind them that interacting with other children is not only fun, but also important for developing social skills. They can videoconference with their friends any time. A chorus of "Right, Dad!" flames me from all sides as I get a call from Don Quixote, my personal digital assistant now plugged into my home network. Quixote's job, among others, is to acquire and process information, articles and Internet transactions for my personal and professional needs.

DQ, as I call Quixote, has lit up my 37-by-17-inch flat panel screen in the dining room to show that we missed the school bus and present my "to-do list" for the day. Before I notice the visual display, DQ begins a verbal account of what needs to be done. It starts with a reminder that I need to transfer money into my checking account to make the car and house payments on time, then asks for approval to use the savings account.

It goes on to say that it's election day and rambles on about my appointments at work. I interrupt DQ and tell it to access the "election web" and get me a portfolio on those candidates who are in line with my political beliefs and personal feelings. While I'm fumbling for a latt? from the coffee machine, DQ displays the candidates and their pictures on my screen.

I sigh, exclaiming how inefficient government is and how a private company could do it cheaper and better, and opt to scan the political ads of the candidates I have chosen to get the latest dirt and state-of-the-art cybertisements. In the middle of the scan, DQ interrupts to tell me that it's my turn to vote and the county clerk asks me to confirm my security key. I agree and enter the code. The screen clears me for my vote and I tell DQ to upload my ballot.> I ask for candidate statements and their position on the concept of direct democracy through a political forum called the Internet Congress. The replies, previously recorded, are replayed through the THX Home Sound System. I call up the electronic ballot, make my decisions and ask DQ to connect me to the County Clerk's Office to vote. DQ tells me it will be a three-minute wait due to the volume of people ahead of me.

Twilight Zone? Science fiction? Not really. Some of it has already happened. California Voter Foundation's Online Voter Guide worked with America Online and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Political Participation Project to put California candidate information on the Internet for the November 1994 election. Companies like Epicenter Research, National Voter Outreach and Aristotle are currently working on providing voter registration and election information over the Internet. With that task completed, I am contacted on a separate channel to again verify my transmission point, voter registration and security key. I re-enter my private security code, which the County Clerk's Office verifies with its public code. The codes agree again and my vote is tallied. I sign off and tell DQ to keep me informed on the hour about the current voter turnout and demographic trends.

Forces are at work today that promise not only increased voter registration, but more participation in elections and multiple avenues for voting; distribution of information about voter registration, candidate and campaign platforms; and election results. The intent of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, more commonly known as motor voter is to register more voters and have up-to-date registration information. but it may be usurped by the mass migration information superhighway where changes happen now don t depend on human intervention for each transaction.

But what about security? What prevents fraudulent voter registration or multiple voting? The short answer is "security." But for folks whose idea of the Internet is formed from mass media accounts of mutating viruses and international hacking into military computers, "security" isn't a satisfactory response. But security over public networks is possible. Consider for the moment that banks transmit billions of dollars around the world every day, all day and all night, without written signatures or someone moving bags of money around. When you need it, security happens.

And the same security mechanism that currently prevents you from registering more than once also prevents you from voting more than once. Your voter registration file and security key will limit the candidates and propositions you can vote for just as you now are limited by your address. This security feature will restrict what you see in your electronic sample ballot to those candidates and issues for which you can vote. A statewide computer network will allow nearly instant registration verification and cross checks to prevent duplicate registration. But this doesn't mean that you can't vote the old fashioned way, whatever is old fashioned in 2008.

Punch-card ballots are everywhere today, but rely on 40-year-old technology. Optically scanned ballots marked by No. 2 pencils are fairly modern for elections, but use 30-year-old technology. Today some counties have decentralized systems where ballots are counted at the polls and the results transmitted by modem to election offices, while other counties have centralized systems requiring transport of ballots to the ballot counting machine for tallying. The rules of the game allow different paths to the same end. However we vote 13 years from now will have to provide for "in-person" voting as well as electronic voting. Casting a vote from your computer - whatever that is in 2008 - may be the 21st century version of absentee voting.

Those of us who maintain voter registration files and conduct elections are all too familiar with requests for current voter data and who voted in past elections. The campaign consultants who use this information to conduct surveys and target messages through the mass media and the mail are well paid for their efforts. In the not-too-distant future this information and more comprehensive demographic data will be easily accessible to far more people at much lower cost. And there will be a cost. Election officials maintain this information not for the convenience of candidates or campaigns, but for the regular exercise of democracy.

One of the barriers to making more information more easily available is the legislative restrictions on cost recovery. There is little incentive for local elections officials to maximize the utility of voter registration data when the law limits the charge for the data to actual costs. The only profit or creativity incentive is left to consultants who can massage the data to suit customers' needs. Putting county clerks in a competitive position could work to lower campaign costs.

One of the innate characteristics of the future is that it gets here before you know it. Our children, growing up with computers as we grew up with television, are pushing change much faster than most people realize. Their expectations are greater and patience shorter than their parents' generation. The only way we will be ready for the 2008 presidential election is to start today.

[June Table of Contents]