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

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