This June in Nova Scotia, the Liberal Party threw open the phone lines at its convention, holding a provincewide televote to choose its new leader. Despite a computer glitch that delayed the vote by two weeks, voters eventually cast ballots in numbers four times greater than at the previous convention, which had used traditional balloting methods.
Late last month, the House Subcommittee on Elections heard testimony on allowing phone or fax voting for overseas civilians and military personnel. Soldiers in the Gulf War voted by fax from the Mideast.
Meanwhile, Boulder, Colo., could become the first U.S. city to test a telephone voting system, if the Voting by Phone Foundation succeeds in getting the issue on this fall's ballot. The proposal has prompted a spirited local debate and, if passed, could present Colorado courts with a landmark case on the issue.
Longstanding proponents say telephone voting could remedy low voter turnout, which has shrunk to half of the eligible voters in presidential elections. Citizens with disabilities or those too busy to vote could be easily enfranchised. Even better, supporters say, the technology already exists. Yet, the idea is dogged by worries over fraud and privacy.
"This idea crops up like mushrooms after a spring rain," says William Kimberling, a Federal Elections Commission official. "I'm just not sure it's worth it, especially if you need a parallel system [of ballot voting]. What do you gain except a terrible expense and unknown ramifications? The futuristic stuff is good for people who watch Star Trek regularly, but not my mother." [We were unable to locate his mother for comment -editor]
Undeterred, advocates say the fine- tuning of communications technology, as well as the public's comfort with banking and shopping by phone, may provide a breakthrough for a heretofore subversive idea.
A symbol of the movement's anti- establishment roots is Evan Ravitz, who founded the Voting by Phone Foundation in 1989. A 40- year- old computer programmer, Mr. Ravitz has variously supported himself as a tightrope walker, juggler and comedian. Now, leading the charge in Boulder, Mr. Ravitz boasts 100 to 200 volunteers and has more than half of the 5,500 signatures needed by next Monday to put the issue on Boulder's ballot. His foundation's literature cites support from local and state politicians of both parties.
Mr. Ravitz argues that phone elections are so easy to put on that they could even be held monthly. Such a system would make voting less disruptive, requiring only a minimum of staff to man a handful of voting booths. Frequent elections, he adds, would spread out the battery of referendums that have clogged many states' ballots recently. Right now, companies such as Call Interactive, a unit of First Data Corp., and MCI Communications Corp. could handle a vote held in almost any single U.S. city, as long as the phone- polls stay open for several hours.
Mr. Ravitz's notion was bolstered by the Nova Scotia vote because it was apparently the first- ever test of voting- by- phone. Liberal Party leaders, who had appealed for ideas on democratizing the party, say the local phone company, Maritime Telegraph & Telephone, was eager to work with them. Once the company solved the first glitch, caused by new computer software, the system easily handled the surge of about 7,000 calls in a two- hour period, says Howard McNutt, Maritime's networks- marketing manager.
Some observers say the vote may already have changed provincial politics in Canada. The experience "compels the other political parties to do the same thing," says Carey Veinotte, an aide to the Liberal member of parliament representing Halifax. "I can't see the grass roots of the Conservative or New Democratic parties accepting brokerage politics ever again, when they can look at everybody in the Nova Scotia Liberal party voting." In fact, Nova Scotia's conservatives have set up a committee to study potential uses of new voting technologies, and the NDP, which has experimented in the past with video linkups, says it would also consider similar methods.
But others aren't impressed. In Washington, Richard Smolka, who has edited Election Administration Reports for 22 years, says he is sick of the idea. "It hasn't advanced one iota, for the obvious reasons. The technology is there - you can change your bank by phone- but the problem with elections is due to the nature of the ballot."
Some obstacles can be overcome. Votes cannot be duplicated if voters are sent confidential ID numbers, like those on a bank card, to punch in before voting. Once a voter's selection is made, he could short-circuit long lists of also- runs by pressing a button. Citizens could vote from home, the office, a friend's house or a public pay phone without giving up the alternative of voting in person. if they so wished. In fact, the number could be set up as a free call, such as 911 or 411 are now.
Telephone voting could actually cut overall costs by 80%, Mr. Ravitz says, compared with the price tag of manning traditional polling places, plus transportation costs and the voter's lost productivity. "The real costs are the costs of moving electrons," he says.
More problematic is fraud. Voting electronically could cut back on petty cheating, but it also opens the door to more widespread and damaging fraud. On the one hand, traditional voting identification "is based on the archaic idea that you know everyone in your precinct," Mr. Ravitz says. [that the election judges know everyone -editor] An electronic system, on the other hand, raises the stakes by making it possible to change thousands of votes with the press of a button. Such mischief as tying up phone lines is also possible. [Please see Security and Privacy]
But voter privacy is perhaps the trickiest issue. Caller- ID can be defeated by using a public phone, but if hackers crack the master list of names and personal ID numbers, they could track a person's votes. Mr. Ravitz's solution: Keep names and ID numbers under lock and key, and use a recording system that keeps ID numbers separate from votes.
"There is no problem with electronic voting per se, but safeguards must be adopted to protect privacy and promote reliability," says Marc Rotenberg, director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. "It's a design issue, and you need independent oversight. Now we have a lot of checks and balances locally, but when things hit the big time, like, 'Push *67 to raise taxes,' the stakes go up quite a bit."
Even if universal telephone voting fails to catch fire, observers say it is likely that local tests will become sufficiently widespread to familiarize voters with the technology. Such a system may actually work better for voting in a corporate or university setting, Maritime's Mr. McNutt says.
The biggest problems may actually be bringing people to the technology, Mr. McNutt adds. With the Liberal Party vote, he says people were willing to learn, once they were talked through it. "They're not Luddites," he says. "They're intelligent people."
Joseph N. Pelton, who directs the University of Colorado graduate telecommunications program and advises Mr. Ravitz's foundation, compares the challenge of telephone voting with that faced by automatic teller machines a few decades ago. "People said, 'I'll never use that.' Now people find them quite user friendly. It took quite a while to work out the bugs. That scenario may happen here."
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