US voters want a polling station in cyberspace

HAILED AS the greatest communicator since Ronald Reagan, President Bill Clinton took to the new media last week to convey his message, becoming the first US president to conduct an internet chat live online.

Mr Clinton, formerly a self-proclaimed computer illiterate, has clearly become aware that next year's election will be the first in which the internet is a perceptible force. All the candidates have their own campaign websites; the publishing millionaire, Steve Forbes, even claimed to have made history by announcing his presidential bid online. And as well as getting a candidate's message out, the websites are bringing in both volunteers and cash. Former Senator Bill Bradley has just passed the $1m (pounds 600,000) mark in money raised online, while Senator John McCain has reached $500,000.

With hi-tech tools proving so effective for the candidates, there is a growing belief in the computer world that it is only a matter of time before voters demand a piece of the action. If they can bank, shop and make political donations online, why can they not also vote online?

As the US enters its election year, this question is being asked with new urgency. A recent survey by the computer company Dell showed that almost 80 per cent of regular internet users wanted to be able to vote online. Voting came second only to renewing their driving licences as the function they would most like to perform on the internet.

In part, this reflects the inconvenience of voting in the US, with polling stations that often can be reached only by car and queues to use clumsy voting machines. Long working hours and commutes are also blamed, along with general political apathy, for a decline in voting that is little short of catastrophic. This time last year, the turnout for Congressional elections was only 36 per cent nationwide, meaning that 120 million potential votes were not cast. In the 1996 presidential election, the turnout was under 50 per cent, compared with 63 per cent in 1960. The most reluctant voters are the 18- to 24-year-olds.

Among the many groups trying to reverse the decline, several advocate the introduction of internet voting, and a number of states, including Florida, Louisiana, Arizona and California, are considering limited trials. The Pentagon, responsible for tens of thousands of troops abroad, has initiated a pilot project to test online voting as a replacement for postal votes. Volunteers are being recruited from five states.

Optimists, of whom Professor Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, is one, believes that internet voting is simply democracy by other means. It has the potential, he says, "to expand our traditional definition and understanding of the American town square".

But although Arizona has broached limited internet voting in its presidential primary next spring, there is no real prospect that it will be an option when Americans go to vote for a new president next November. Nor is it likely that voters will be able to cast their ballot from their home desktop any time soon. An unspoken assumption is that there would be an interim stage during which voters would find a computer in place of the familiar machine inside the voting booth. This could speed up the procedure for the computer literate, but could also produce bottlenecks if even a few were flummoxed by the process.

Another fear is that electronic voting would favour those with computers - that is, the wealthier and better educated. However, not everyone accepts that the "digital divide" would keep the computer have-nots from voting: computer ownership is more diffuse than often believed.

Online voting opens the possibility of a 24-hour voting day. Computer terminals in libraries and cybercafes could be brought into service for those without their own machines, and internet voting might even appeal to those elusive 18- to 24- year-olds. That presupposes, of course, that it is the hassle of voting that keeps them at home, rather than the nature of politics or the calibre of the candidates.

HOW IT COULD WORK

INITIALLY, it sounds attractive to turn the tedious process of voting into something which could be done at home or at a multimedia phone.

The questions that arise, however, are: how could you guarantee that enemies such as, say, China, could not hack into the system and install their choice? And how would you ensure that each person can only vote once, while also making certain that who they voted for remains secret?

An American internet company, eBallot, insists an electronic vote could be more secure and private than the present, mechanical system. It already produces online voting programs.

If it worked, electronic voting would be faster, since the votes could be tallied almost instantly. But encrypting votes would only be half of the task; the other is to make sure that people do not vote "early and often", and to prevent personation. Producing millions of passwords, one for each voter to be used once only, is easy. The problem is making sure that the codes are only publicly available for a brief enough time to limit the hackers' chances.

"Of all the real-world applications of cryptography, this is the hardest," said Phillip Hallam-Baker, a computer security expert. "It is the sheer complexity of deploying technology flawlessly for a one day event that makes it hard."

Similarly, keeping the database where the votes are tallied secure from outside attack becomes harder as the system gets more centralised. Paradoxically, the more machines there are recording smaller numbers of votes, the harder it will be to hack in and affect them all in the time that the machines are "open" for voting.

CHARLES ARTHUR

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all