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
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Sport
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football'Mr Marmite' faced the possibility of a 28-day ban
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
News
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
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

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower