Internet-voting proponents claim it will increase voter participation. The statistics they point to make a convincing argument: In 1960, more than 63 percent of all eligible voters participated in the general election. In 1996, only 49 percent did, ranking the United States 138th in a list of 170 Democratic nations. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest has to do with inconvenience. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, "Time constraints are now the single biggest reason Americans who are registered give for not voting."
Many feel our system of voting is antiquated. Getting up, going to polling places and standing in line are not what we've come to expect in our current "we want it now, we want it easy" culture. Why should we expect the electorate to bust a sweat and actually, like, get up off the couch and put one foot in front of the other until we're face-to-face with the polling place?
The convenience of electronic voting, some say, would ensure more participation - which would make for a stronger electorate. In 1996, according to votehere.net, only 15 percent of the people between the ages of 18 and 24 voted. Many think that this Internet-savvy age group would flock to online polls if given an e-option.
Supporters of the status quo argue that the chief value of the traditional voting ritual is to convey the significance of voting to democratic citizens. Once this ritual becomes a deterrent to the ritual itself, however, it ceases to serve its purpose. With Internet voting, more of us will be able to exercise our right to vote and fulfill our civic responsibilities.
Or will we?
The biggest deterrent to online voting is that it is exclusionary. Online voting, after all, is only possible if one has an Internet connection and a computer. What is the impact if the necessary components of online voting are not proportionately spread across racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines? Given the disparity in Internet access, remote Internet voting represents a 21st Century version of a literacy test.
According to "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide," a 1999 Department of Commerce study, only 19 percent of blacks and 16 percent of Hispanics have Internet access from any location, compared to 38 percent of whites. Making voting more convenient for voters who have ready access to the Internet boosts the potential turnout for connected voters, while diluting the power of nonconnected voters.
The other arguments against online voting are technical, relating to security and privacy. Having just come through viruses like The Love Bug and Melissa - which infected over 50 million computers in over 20 countries to the tune of over $9 billion - can we really say that "Internet security" is anything but an oxymoron?
Not only is the Internet not a secure environment, it's not an American environment. Roughly half of all cyber-travelers come from outside our borders. The Love Bug virus was hatched in the Philippines.
Virus code is readily available on the Internet itself, and the proliferation of "distributed denial of service attacks" on commercial and government Web sites is a testament to the attraction such mischief holds for some. Government Web sites get attacked more often than a three-legged wildebeest strolling the Serengeti. According to the Pentagon, many hostile foreign governments have developed special capabilities to utilize the Internet for terrorism or warfare.
Developing the ability to interfere with or manipulate the outcomes of American elections is the greatest fear.
How could a hacker manipulate an election? A virus could wait until the cryptography was "opened" by voters when the ballots arrive, to enable them to log their choices, and then the virus could change voters' choices and ride back encrypted, disguised as the voters' actual ballots.
Because any election system must separate a voter's choices from the identity of the voter to protect ballot secrecy, the voter would receive verification only that the ballot had been received - not what the votes were. In other words, viruses could steal people's votes, and the voter and election officials would simply have no mechanism to detect the theft.
In this manner, elections could be manipulated wholesale, if the virus author was successful in infecting a sufficient number of computers. And as we've seen in Florida, it only takes a few hundred ballots to determine the outcome of an election and the fate of a country.
Robert Jackson, Jr., is president of Deep River Media, a consulting firm dedicated to providing strategic business guidance to corporations that hope to take advantage of Internet e-business opportunities. His Internet address is (http://www.deeprivermedia.com).