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Critics, however, say that the same techniques that safeguard privacy and anonymity can make it difficult to review election results in the case of irregularities. Conventional voting that uses paper ballots, punch cards, optical scanning, and mechanical lever machines guarantees anonymity and also leaves a paper trail that officials can later follow; e-commerce and online-banking transactions also generate copious records. But electronic votes can be altered without leaving any sign of tampering. “There is a conflict between anonymity and auditability,” says MIT computer scientist Ronald Rivest, who is researching the problem.

Indeed, some experts question whether the early results in Europe add up to real progress toward Internet voting. The European tests have involved “inconsequential elections,” says Paul Herrnson, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “I don’t view that as momentum.” Herrnson believes it will take years to overcome the technology and policy hurdles to Internet voting.

But if the U.S. Congress approves a pending bill* that would give state and local election agencies billions of dollars for new voting technologies, the momentum could pick up quickly. At least two startup companies, VoteHere in Bellevue, WA, and Election.com in Garden City, NY, say they’re ready to help U.S. state and county governments conduct public elections. And online voting in the United States already has gained a foothold in the armed forces: service members around the world were able to vote over the Internet in the 2000 presidential election. “Once the door is open through the military, [Internet voting] is just going to continue. Within 10 years we should have a decent system,” predicts MIT political scientist Stephen Ansolabehere.

As voters in this November’s elections face old-fashioned paper ballots, lever machines, and punch cards, the future of Internet voting in the United States remains too close to call. But Ansolabehere, for one, believes change is likely. And in the end, he predicts, it won’t be driven by academics or policymakers, but by beleaguered U.S. election commissioners who see how much Internet voting could simplify their jobs.

 

*UPDATE, 10/17/02: The U.S. Senate approved the bill, which had already been passed by the House of Representatives, on October 16. It authorizes $3.9 billion in federal aid for election system upgrades over the next three years. President Bush has indicated that he will sign the bill.

 

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