The Internet Vox Populi

As Election Day turnouts dwindle, many activists and lawmakers are turning to electronic networks to make voting easier and thus more appealing to busy Americans. Skeptics worry about the potential for abuse

By Graeme Browning, National Journal

BOULDER, COLO. -- Voters here encountered several referenda issues on the local ballot in November 1993 but none more striking than question D. It would have made future elections dramatically different; people could use their telephones or computers to cast ballots.
      Boulder's voters rejected the idea, 59-41 percent. But two and a half years later this issue has resurfaced because computers have become a fixture in many households. Boulder, a college town nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, now has one of the highest rates of Internet usage in the country. And some local officials are suggesting putting the electronic-voting proposition back on the ballot.
      "I wasn't in favor of the idea in 1993 because of security concerns, but I've gotten to the point where that issue doesn't seem to be a big deal anymore," Stephen M. Pomerance, a private investor and consultant who's a city council member, said in a recent interview. "I'd rather people have more access to their government."
      Such talk makes Boulder Mayor Leslie L. Durgin nervous. "This idea would work well for those people who are already involved in technology," Durgin said one morning as she sipped coffee in the refurbished dining room of the century-old Boulderado Hotel. "But I find that people who say, `Oh, everybody has a computer, everybody's on the Internet,' are overlooking a huge portion of our population that is not."
      As voter turnouts dwindle and cynicism about government continues to bubble across the country, many activists and lawmakers alike are turning to computer networks in efforts to make the traditional duties of citizenship -- voting chief among them -- easier to accomplish and thus more appealing to busy Americans.
      Electronic-voting proposals get the most attention because they are the most controversial, but experiments with on- line voter registration, targeted electronic polling and "town hall" meetings conducted on the Internet are also under way.
      Some of these experiments reflect the conviction of many Internet enthusiasts that computer-aided "direct" democracy -- which relies on frequent referenda and voter initiatives -- may be better suited to governance in the Information Age than traditional representative democracy is.
      Back in Washington, even Congress appears to be warming to the concept of giving voters a virtual seat at the table during its deliberations. The recently formed congressional Internet Caucus has established a site on the World Wide Web, the Net's multimedia corner, where people may one day be able to participate, via computer, in caucus meetings. "One of the things our Web page will allow us to do eventually is provide a funnel directly into Congress," Rep. Rick A. White, R-Wash., a caucus co-founder, said at a late-March press conference.
      Opponents worry, however, that fraud, abuse and breaches of security will be as much a problem on computer networks as they have been in the past at the ballot box. Conservative political analysts also fear that when people don't have an opportunity to engage in or witness face-to-face deliberations, they will lose that sense of personal involvement in government that helps keeps a democracy alive.
      "When you vote, you come to the same place as other people, you wait in line with other people, you see candidates standing outside the polling area. That has a lot to do with how people perceive the process of governing," said David E. Mason, director of congressional studies for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. "The problems of people feeling alienated could be exacerbated by relying entirely on the computer or the phone, simply because the distance between what the voters do and the final action of the government is that much greater."
      That distance already seems too much for many Americans. Nationally, voter turnout has declined by almost 25 percent in the past three decades, RAND, the California think tank, reported recently. At the same time, the ranks of volunteers for such civic groups as parent-teacher organizations and the Red Cross have shrunk dramatically, while the number of people who say they have attended a public meeting in the past year dropped from 22 percent in 1973 to 13 percent in 1993.
      "Electronic networks can facilitate citizen participation in the political process. Some individuals now use E-mail [electronic mail] to contact government representatives, for instance," the RAND report noted. The report recommended that the federal government make E-mail available to everyone. "Broad access to computers and electronic networks. . . might help reduce if not reverse the trends toward disengagement in civic and political affairs," the report concluded.
      Declining interest in politics is evident in Boulder, where only 38.6 percent of the city's 68,000-plus registered voters made it to the polls for last November's municipal elections. In 1989, a mere 18.3 percent cast ballots in the city council race.
      Officials here try to put a brave face on the statistics. The November election "was a good turnout, considering that many people in Boulder register just to establish residency, so they can go to school here" at the University of Colorado, city clerk Alisa D. Lewis said in an interview.
      But local activists argue that the citizens of Boulder and many other communities are staying away from the voting booth because they're convinced that lawmakers pay little attention to their views anyway. "Americans are deeply disturbed by how unrepresentative their government is," Evan Ravitz, director of the Government by the People Foundation, a Boulder-based advocacy group that is a prime supporter of electronic voting, said in an interview. "People are looking for alternatives, and one of those alternatives is direct democracy."

Ballot-Box Connections

      Ravitz's group -- formerly called the Voting by Phone Foundation -- designed the electronic-voting system that voters here rejected in 1993.
      The system would work much like automated voice mail. A voter taps a password of his or her own choosing into a computer database and is, in turn, assigned a random identification number that is too long for anybody else to guess. At the same time the computer checks off the voter's name on the rolls so that he or she can't cast an additional ballot.
      On Election Day, the voter calls a toll-free number and punches in the ID number on the telephone number pad. The computer then presents the ballot choices. If the system had been in use in the 1994 presidential election, for example, a digitalized voice would have greeted voters with a message something like this:
"For President and Vice President, to vote for Bush and Quayle, Republicans, press 1. For Clinton and Gore, Democrats, press 2. For other `write-in' candidates, press 3. To skip this race, press 0."
      A voter who wanted to write in candidates would be asked to say, and spell, the candidates' names.
      To confirm votes, the digitalized voice would announce,
"You voted for [the candidates' names]. Press 1 if this is correct, or 2 to change your vote."
      At the end of the procedure the computer would give the voter a confirmation number that could be checked against a listing of votes in the local newspaper.
      The system presented to Boulder voters was geared toward the telephone, but all of these procedures could easily be carried out on a computer, over the Internet, said Vincent N. Campbell, a former Washington-based management consultant who has helped refine the system.
      "This is not cutting-edge technology. It's easy stuff," said Campbell, who joined Ravitz's group after he retired and moved to Boulder three years ago.
      Two other systems now available expand electronic-voting technology even further. California computer programmer Marilyn Davis has developed "eVote," a computer program that makes possible the casting of a variety of votes, from "yes/no" types to grouped votes that direct the user to "pick one of the following five" or "vote for 10 out of the next 20 items." Davis's system can also be programmed to let voters see how others voted, change votes until the balloting closes and watch the vote tally develop.
      Lorrie Faith Cranor, a graduate student in engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, has developed a more complex system called "Sensus." Her system uses electronic cryptography and "blind" digital signatures to assure the privacy of votes. Cranor's program automatically encodes each ballot, marks it with a signature that doesn't reveal its contents, verifies that a voter is registered and has voted only once, and submits it to another computer program that decodes it and adds it to the vote tally.
      Cranor's system also gives people the opportunity to cast what she calls a "contingency" vote. Many backers of Texas billionaire Ross Perot didn't vote for him in the 1994 presidential election because "they felt that [he] didn't have a very good chance of winning," Cranor said in a recent interview with Off the Record, an electronic magazine. "We have no idea how many people actually would have voted for Perot if they felt he was a viable candidate. And it would be nice to be able to somehow capture that [number] to determine whether the winner has a strong mandate or not."

Democratechs Lead The Way?

      Electronic voting, or "E-voting," systems offer many of the benefits that voting by mail does, supporters say. Not only does E-voting relieve citizens of the burden of having to vote in person, on a specified day, within a limited time period, but it also dramatically lowers costs.
      Election Day 1995 cost Boulder approximately $2 a vote, Lewis, the city clerk, said. Campbell estimates that a vote-by- phone system would have cost 25-75 cents a vote the first time it was used, and proportionately less each subsequent time as installation costs were amortized. By comparison, Oregon's recent vote-by-mail election for the U.S. Senate cost about $1 per vote.
      Mail-in voting offers ease and convenience, but E-voting could theoretically give citizens a direct say in their government, supporters say.
      In November 1994, Canadian authorities approved the accreditation of the Democratech Party of British Columbia. The party advocates turning all governmental decisions over to the public, to be resolved through electronic referenda.
      "Representative government assumes that the people need to elect someone to represent them in a faraway legislative assembly," the organization announced at its site on the World Wide Web. "But with modern, instantaneous communications, the people can directly make their own decisions, relegating politicians to the scrap heap of history."
      Motivated by the same reasoning, Marc Strassman, a free- lance television producer in Los Angeles, recently launched a "Campaign for Digital Democracy" whose goal was gathering signatures to put an electronic-voting initiative on California's ballot in November. The initiative would have allowed "any otherwise eligible Californian" to register to vote, sign official petitions and vote through computers, telephones, personal digital assistants, interactive television "and any other device capable of originating and transmitting a secure digital signal."
      In April 1995, in an election that cost the city about $13 per voter, barely 20 percent of Los Angeles's registered voters turned out for the city's municipal elections, Strassman said in an interview. Voters all over California cast their ballots on IBM punch cards, "so it's not like computers aren't used in voting now," he said. "I figured, `Let's just take the power of this technology and move it into the political arena."'
      Strassman got few signatures for his petition, and the initiative died. He continues to maintain the Web site he established for the campaign, however, in the hope that computer enthusiasts will rally to the cause when E-voting becomes more widely understood. "I still believe it's a good idea," he said. "I just don't think it will happen right now."

Thanks But No Thanks

      Because of the 1993 referendum, Boulder Mayor Durgin, city clerk Lewis and city council member Pomerance have probably done more thinking about electronic voting than almost any other public officials in the United States. And they're not sure it's such a good idea.
      Lewis fears that computer-based democracy would triple public officials' workloads, encourage voting abuses and fraud and frustrate the very citizens they're trying to help. "Where does your priority lie?" she asked. "Do you respond first to the person you're talking to on the phone, or the person who is standing in your office or to the person who is sending you a request through E-mail?"
      Durgin is reluctant to discard any of the strictures of representative democracy for what she calls "this quick, taking- the-pulse-of-the-community kind of thing."
      "There's this notion that you can simply put out as a quick poll, `Do you favor X, yes or no?' without understanding all of the complexities and the legal ramifications of whatever X is," she said. "And then you have the assumption that the decision has to be legally binding. That worries me."
      Pomerance, on the other hand, says that E-voting would be terrific for referenda, where the only decision facing voters is whether they agree with actions the city council plans to take. He also says he feels strongly that "more participation in the political process is a good thing."
      He worries, however, that electronic voting will become an easy out for citizens who don't want to resolve important issues face-to-face. For example, people here have been warring recently over whether to allow dog owners to take unleashed pets on jogging trails. "I could just see somebody turning that into an initiative and demanding a vote on it, instead of hashing it out at a city council meeting, where it belongs," he said.
      That's a valid fear, conservative analysts say. "We're going to have real trouble if we make voting as easy as going to the bathroom," said Curtis B. Gans, director of the Washington- based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "There is something called the communal act of voting that shouldn't be sacrificed lightly."
      Making voting easier doesn't automatically lead to increased turnouts, Mason of the Heritage Foundation added. "In the days when people had to walk on foot and ride on horseback to vote, we had a higher turnout than today," he said.
      He also cautions against abandoning the filtering process that traditional government provides. "By electing representatives rather than having direct democracy, you have some level that proposals have to move through," he said. "And there's compromise. By discussing issues, and trying to balance competing interests, most of the time you come up with a better solution than if you'd gone to a straight yes/no vote."
      Many of these concerns pale, however -- at least in the eyes of some voters -- in the face of the immediate consensus electronic voting can generate.
      Last December, Princeton University conducted campus-wide student government elections through an electronic-voting system as well as through traditional paper ballots. Eighty percent of the students who were eligible to vote did so, compared with approximately 40 percent in previous elections. Strict verification procedures kept incidents of fraud to zero, said Jared P. Schutz, president of Boulder-based Stardot Consulting, who administered the elections.
      "The philosophy of the Internet is that government is not as relevant as it was in the past," said Schutz, a recent college graduate himself. "In the past you could only talk about direct democracy in a theoretical sense. But now, due to this new technology, people can effectively legislate for themselves."
      A major reworking of the Constitution would have to take place before such self-legislation could become a reality, and that's not likely to happen any time soon. But as voters become more accustomed to voicing their opinions via computer, the process of seeking public consensus may never be the same.

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April 20-21, 1996

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