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March 13, 2008

Why Can't Michigan and Florida Re-Vote Online?

posted by Josh Goodman

Michigan and Florida are looking for Wal-Mart-priced elections.

The consensus is that the Democratic Party and the two states would be better off if Michigan and Florida conducted new contests to select presidential delegates. The national party wants to avoid a credentials fight that could harm the Democratic nominee and insult the voters of two large swing states. The states want to count.

The consensus, however, is that no one really has the money to pay for traditional primaries, which is why unorthodox ideas such as voting by mail have gained traction.

Let me suggest another one: holding online elections.

That might be a radical idea, but it's not an entirely unprecedented one. Believe it or not, the largest Internet voting experiment in American history occurred in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary in, yes, Michigan.

That election generally was regarded as a success. More than 46,000 people voted online in the party-run primary (technically a caucus).

Liz Kerr, a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, told me the party would be happy to use online voting again. She said that Michigan Democrats think they've succeeded in minimizing security concerns related to voting over the Internet.

Michigan, however, used online voting in conjunction with in-person and mail-in balloting in 2004. To save money through Internet voting, you have to avoid paying costs associated with traditional balloting -- election workers, etc. In other words, you have to hold an exclusively online vote or something close to it.

That, Kerr says, is out of the question. "That would certainly disenfranchise a good number of voters," she says.

But would it really? If voting took place only on one day, anyone without Internet access at home would have a tough time participating. If the election lasted two weeks, a month or six weeks, those burdens would be far lower.

Over a month, couldn't almost anyone make it to a library or community center (or even a government office) for five minutes to vote online? The hardest part probably wouldn't be getting voters to computers, but making sure they know what to do once they get online -- what Web site to visit and how to cast the ballot (or even how to visit a Web site in the first place).

But, compared to caucuses, online voting would be downright democratic. Voters wouldn't have to show up at a particular place at a particular time and, in some cases, stay there for several hours. That process can disenfranchise the infirmed or people who simply have to work.

Karen Thurman, the chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, has said she won't accept a revote that prevents servicemembers overseas from participating. Online voting would meet that criteria, traditional caucuses wouldn't.

Still, I doubt everyone would be as confident in the security of online voting as Kerr. I spoke with Lorrie Cranor, a Carnegie Mellon online voting expert, to get a better sense of what the security issues might be. One of the big problems, she said, is perception.

"We have had a lot of experience with computerized voting that's not online. It has gone fairly badly," Cranor notes. "There is a lot of concern that, if we can't even get that right, what makes us think we can handle it on the Internet?"

But Cranor also said those fears are justified, at least to some extent. Internet voting is used for things like student council elections and corporate elections. There are examples of hackers changing the results.

There is a way to minimize that risk: maintain a list of who voted for whom. If a voter can verify his or her vote, that builds trust in the system and allows fraud to be exposed quickly.

The secret ballot is a sacrosanct principle of American democracy -- in general elections. In nominating contests, however, it often doesn't exist. Many of the caucuses that have been held this year entailed voters expressing their candidate preference in front of dozens or hundreds of people.

Online voting wouldn't have to involve anything that invasive. Cranor says that Internet voting companies promise that they can allow for vote verification, without the list becoming public.

Nonetheless, there are major problem with Florida and Michigan voting online. Cranor points out that hackers could still launch "denial-of-service" attacks, shutting would-be voters out of the system. Even without foul play, the danger of technical glitches is substantial, especially because both states would be jumping into this option very quickly.

So, Michigan and Florida probably shouldn't hold re-votes exclusively online. At best, Internet voting is a risky, imperfect solution to the Democrats' dilemma. Still, it's interesting that this risky, imperfect solution is superior in key ways (access, privacy) to the caucus, a common, accepted way for states to assign presidential convention delegates.


Mark Stencel (Governing)

My biggest concern with my colleague Josh's suggestion would be the security issues related to the use of publicly available computer terminals (libraries, etc.) for voting. Personally I would never make a credit card purchase on such a computer -- and I would be similarly concerned about voting on one. I'd need to know a lot more about how each computer and its network configurations were set up to have that kind of confidence.

Some institutions that provide free Internet access to patrons actively discourage and even prohibit some online transactions on their public computer terminals. Take for example this privacy warning from the West Chicago Public Library District ( ). It says:

"An individual's use of Library computer resources is not monitored; however, users should have no expectation of privacy as all computer workstations and printers are in view of other patrons and staff. Workstations with Internet access are provided for informational research only which can be conducted on a multi-user machine and is appropriate for display in a public environment. Neither privacy nor security encryption for confidential online transactions are provided nor implied. Users are thus restricted from using Library Internet workstations for online financial transactions including, but not limited to, online banking, electronic income tax filing and credit card or other purchases."

OK, ready to vote now?

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