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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power