Who will ever forget the endless examinations of Florida’s paper ballots and the debates over “hanging” and “pregnant” chads after the 2000 U.S. presidential vote? Florida’s saga continued in September as technical glitches with new touchscreen voting machines marred gubernatorial primaries. In this digital age, there would seem to be an obvious fix to the problems created by Florida’s voting machines: Internet voting technology.But two years later, as the country again goes through an election cycle, talk of modernizing the U.S. system with technologies such as Internet voting has remained just that-talk. The inaction, experts say, is largely a product of inertia, funding shortages, and concerns about privacy and computer hacking. Because the nation’s public computer networks were designed for openness, not privacy and security, “you can’t trust any [election] system on the Internet,” maintains Peter Neumann, a scientist at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA.
Although banks and other businesses have found secure ways to conduct transactions online, Internet voting technologies must really be fail-safe, says Lauren Weinstein, cofounder with Neumann of People for Internet Responsibility. “Banking online has a lot of holes, but when there is an error, it will be revealed.” He explains that customers notice problems on their credit card statements, and they receive a reminder if a bill goes unpaid. Voters, on the other hand, usually have no way to check whether their vote was recorded correctly.
Yet Internet voting is making headway in Europe, where national and municipal governments are pushing ahead with multimillion-dollar projects. “There are issues,” says Paul Waller, director of e-democracy in the United Kingdom’s Office of the e-Envoy, a cabinet office that puts government services online. “[But] the fact that they exist does not stop us from moving ahead and doing lots of research.” In local elections last May, the United Kingdom conducted 16 pilot programs that involved voting or counting ballots electronically. Last year, the Swiss government launched a $20 million initiative to develop electronic voting systems. Three cantons, or states, are experimenting with e-voting, and the canton of Geneva says Internet voting will be available to its citizens next year on a trial basis. Italy, too, is testing a large-scale Internet voting system and will publish a report assessing the experiment early next year.