As voters across the country scramble to the make it to polling booths today, the idea of a Net ballot probably sounds like a darn good idea.
But the creators of automated election technologies say it will be a long time before most citizens are able to cast votes online, instead of using a punch card in their local elementary school.
Cyberspace does have its role to play in today's nationwide elections. Netizens could have registered to vote online in some counties. Voters also can research candidates and campaign contributions over the Net, debate the issues in chat rooms, and check results in many jurisdictions as they start flowing in.
However, fear of online ballot tampering and state laws prohibiting voting over telephone wires have hindered the widespread use of the Net as a polling place for public elections.
"The Internet poses a host of challenges from a security standpoint, and that is probably why it hasn't come to the forefront in our industry," said Todd Urosevich, vice president of election services for American Information Systems, which has been selling services to automate the election process since 1978.
"It is certainly something that has been discussed here at AIS," he added. "Internet voting will be a big--if not a bigger--trend in our business as the all-mail ballot was 10 years ago."
Urosevich wouldn't disclose whether his company had Net-voting technologies in the works, but said he expected to see a product on the market within the next two to three years.
Last Thursday, Florida Secretary of State Sandra Mortham said the state will allow absentee voting via the Net by 1998. The pilot project will target members of the military and citizens who are out of the country on Election Day.
"The time constraints involved in Florida's unique system, with three elections in a two-month period, demand creative uses of technology to allow these voters full participation in our electoral process," Mortham stated when introducing the virtual ballot initiative, which the state legislature approved.
Once a Florida voter receives authorizations, they will be given an electronic ballot book. Their votes will be registered instantly with the supervisor of elections.
Other Web-based efforts, such as those of California's San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, let voters register, read up on ballot measures, and print out a sample ballot. In another example, Minnesota's nonpartisan E-Democracy site provides similar information, plus hosts RealAudio town-hall meetings with candidates and archives online pre-election debates.
There also is a huge movement to post campaign contribution records in cyberspace. To name a few, Hawaii, Washington, Oklahoma, California, and Missouri all have set up or approved systems to put some or all election finance records on the Net.
Displaying immediate election results, though, is probably the most utilized application of the Net when it comes to digital democracy.
"Right now what we're looking at is only displaying results over the Internet," said Jeff Ryan, senior vice president of Business Records Corporation, whose election automation products are used by more than 1,600 voting jurisdictions throughout North America.
"Voting over the Net is very doable technology-wise, but the concerns are really security based," he said. "Even with the mail ballots, you have an actual document that you can go back to and that provides an audit trail."
Like any Net transaction, the success of online voting will come down to consumer confidence. Despite the abundance of products that protect and authenticate digital communications, many are still worried about duplicate voting and hackers changing ballots or compromising their privacy.
Until these issues are addressed, the medium will remain a voter resource instead of a ballot box.
"With the Internet, citizens are not just limited to newspaper analysis; they can get a wider range of viewpoints. During the last election season we were getting 400,000 to 500,000 hits a day," said Adelaide Elm, a board member of Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit, nonpartisan clearinghouse for information on thousands of candidates nationwide. This week, the group released a free hard-copy Web guide for finding data about voting, elections, and candidates.
Online ballots could help remedy the lag in voter turnout, she added.
"Voting in the poll may be nostalgia from the past because it is harder and harder for people to vote in person," she said.