01/22/2004 08:00:00

Internet voting will require gradual, rational planning and experimentation, experts write

PASADENA, Calif.--Will Internet voting be a benefit to 21st-century democracy, or could it lead to additional election debacles like the one that occurred in 2000?

According to two experts on voting technology, the use of the Internet for voting can move forward in an orderly and effective way, but there should be experimentation and intelligent planning to ensure that it does so. Michael Alvarez, of the California Institute of Technology, and Thad E. Hall of the Century Foundation write in their new book that two upcoming experiments with Internet voting will provide unique data on how effective Internet voting can be in improving the election process.

On February 7, 2004, the Michigan Democratic Party will allow voters the option of voting over the Internet when casting their ballots in the party caucus. Then, for the presidential election on November 2, voters covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Civilian Absentee Voting Act who are registered in participating states will be able to vote over the Internet thanks to the Federal Voting Assistance Program's Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE).

In their book Point, Click, and Vote: The Future of Internet Voting (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), Alvarez and Hall outline a step-by-step approach to moving forward with Internet voting. Their approach focuses primarily on the need for experimentation. Hall notes, "The transition to the widespread use of Internet voting cannot, and should not, occur overnight. There must be a deliberate strategy--involving experimentation and research--that moves along a rational path to Internet voting."

Alvarez and Hall base their conclusions on four key points:

= There should be a series of well-planned, controlled experiments testing the feasibility of Internet voting, targeting either special populations of voters--such as military personnel, individuals living abroad, or people with disabilities--or special types of elections, such as low-turnout local elections.

= Internet security issues must be studied more effectively so that voters can have confidence in the integrity of online voting.

= Legal and regulatory changes must be studied to see what is needed to make Internet voting a reality, especially in the United States. Election law in America varies at the state, county, and local levels, and it is likely that laws in many states will have to be changed to make Internet voting possible.

= The digital divide must be narrowed, so that all voters will have a more equal opportunity to vote over the Internet. Competitive pricing and market forces will help to lower barriers to becoming a part of the online community.

As Alvarez notes, "There were Internet voting trials conducted in 2000, but no meaningful data were collected, making it impossible to know whether they were a success. The 2004 Internet voting trials provide an opportunity to collect the data necessary to understand how Internet voting impacts the electoral process."

Alvarez is a professor of political science at Caltech and is co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. He was a lead author of Voting: What Is, What Could Be, which was published by the project after the 2000 elections. He has published several books on voting behavior and written numerous articles on the topic as well. In 2001, he testified before Congress about election reform and has appeared as an expert witness in election-related litigation. Alvarez has a Ph.D. in political science from Duke University.

Hall is a program officer with the Century Foundation. He served on the professional staff of the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, where he wrote an analysis of the administration of the 2001 Los Angeles mayoral election, "LA Story: The 2001 Mayoral Election," that was published by the Century Foundation. He has written about voting and election administration for both academic and popular audiences and has testified before Congress on the topic. His forthcoming book examining the policy process in Congress, Authorizing Policy, will be published later this year by the Ohio State University Press. He has a Ph.D. in political science and public policy from the University of Georgia.

Written by Robert Tindol