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Florida pushes online voting

Residents of the sunshine state may be the first to cast ballots for general elections via the Net, as its plan for online voting moves forward.

    Florida residents may be the first to cast ballots for general elections using Net protocols, as a plan to set groundbreaking technical standards for online voting in the state moves forward.

    The sunshine state's Division of Elections today said it has proposed rules to set up certification and approval of hardware and software for the implementation of electronic and electromechanical voting systems statewide.

    The state is moving to adopt the "Florida Internet and Intranet Voting Systems Standards," a policy that will set minimum standards for all voting systems to transmit untabulated ballot images or ballot data through the Internet or any intranet. But the the system will not allow voters to cast ballots from their home computers--instead the systems will be set up at the polls.

    "This is cheaper, faster, and better because paper ballots are very expensive," said Paul Craft, computer audit analyst for the elections division.

    "We are not politically ready to do [remote] Net voting in this country, but we are getting there," he added. "We are moving quickly technologically."

    The details of the rules will be hammered out at a December 29 workshop, at which the community and various technology providers can give their input.

    Florida's move will no doubt be closely monitored by lawmakers in other states, many of which already post campaign finance reports online or handle voter registration via the Net. Florida offers both services.

    The state's latest initiative marks its second foray into online voting.

    Secretary of State Sandra Mortham announced a pilot project in 1997 to let members of the military or citizens who were out of the country vote online through an electronic ballot book that instantly registered their votes with the supervisor of elections. But the project never received federal funding and ultimately was canceled for this year.

    "It was not ready to run for the November general election, as we had hoped, because of the lack of federal funding," Craft said. "But currently we are hoping we can do a pilot as early as March or April."

    Observers said that Net voting has yet to become widespread for a wide variety of reasons--from concerns about security to a strong desire to preserve tradition. Fears of ballot-tampering online, along with various state laws prohibiting voting over telephone wires, have hampered efforts to make the Net a legitimate polling place for public elections.

    However, makers of automated voting technologies say Net voting is progressing faster now than it was last year at this time.

    "Internet voting [technology] is a project we continue to work on, and we anticipate that we will deliver a product to the marketplace somewhere down the road," said Todd Urosevich, vice president of election services for American Information Systems, which has been selling services to automate election processes since 1978.

    "Security is a concern with any voting system, obviously," he added. "But we want to be prepared to deliver products when the individual states deem it appropriate to offer that avenue to their voters."

    Urosevich wouldn't discuss the developments his company has made so far in Net-voting systems, but said he expected to see a product on the market within the next two years.

    Florida, for its part, is particularly sensitive to concerns about voter fraud. A study by the state's Division of Elections this year showed that 58,000 voters in the state were likely registered in more than one county.

    Moreover, Secretary of State Mortham supported legislation passed in the state to curb ballot-box stuffing, by requiring the last four digits of a new voters' Social Security number in order to confirm that what a person lists as his residence on voting registrations is where the voter actually is living.