SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Now that the presidential election is finally resolved, it's not too early to wonder whether technology could save us from another debacle the next time around.
After all, college entrance exams and tax returns can all be done electronically. So why not voting?
In Brazil, voters have cast ballots on computers for five years. Arizona Democrats conducted their presidential primary online this year, and watched turnout soar.
So you'd think we'd be able to quickly replace the antiquated voting systems that gave us dimpled chads and butterfly ballots. Think again.
Unfortunately, barriers mostly political and financial are likely to keep any kind of widespread electronic voting out of the electoral process for years.
"Even with this election it will take a while to move to reform," said Jeremy Sharrard, an analyst at Forrester Research in Boston. "It speeds up the discussion which speeds up reform, but it is a frustratingly slow process."
Already, computers are being asked to help provide the inscrutable certainty lacking in the Florida election. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y, and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., have introduced a bill that would offer as much as $250 million to help states modernize their election systems.
But as the Florida imbroglio showed, decisions about voting systems are made at the county level, where money for expensive changes is often hard to come by and power over elections is guarded closely.
If and when computers do play a role in voting, most experts in security and elections agree it will be at polling sites rather than over the Internet -- despite the alluring ease of being able to cast your vote from home in your pajamas or at work during a coffee break.
In Brazil, where Election Day is a national holiday and voting is compulsory, citizens use touch-screen computers and machines outfitted with keyboards to cast ballots in precincts.
The votes are recorded on disks, backed up with paper printouts, and transmitted over dedicated network lines to a central counting site once polls close, explained Bob Cook and Jim Ekholm, executives at Unisys Corp. who helped design the first phase of the Brazil system.
Transmitting vote totals in such a way is considered extremely secure because the network is not connected to the Internet. It handles only the voting data, which is encrypted so as to be tamperproof and readable only by the central computer doing the counting.
"A seemingly backward country has leapfrogged past us again," said Ekholm, who lives in Palm Beach County, Fla., ground zero in Election 2000.
About 10 percent of American voters cast ballots on an electronic machine in November, according to The Election Center, a Texas-based training organization for election officials.
Most places favor touch-screen computers because they are easy even for people completely unfamiliar with technology.
In the U.S. systems, votes are recorded on disks that are later transferred to a central counting system.
No state has approved a system that uses networked computers or phone lines to transmit election results as in Brazil, though the Federal Election Commission is considering standards for such systems.
In October and November, four California counties -- Sacramento, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Diego -- held unofficial demonstrations in which networked computers were set up at county election offices and votes were sent using the Internet to a central server for tabulation.
About 2,000 test ballots were cast, and hackers were challenged to disrupt the system.
No breaches were reported -- though security experts say such experiments are misleading, because hackers are unlikely to tip their hands too early by showing they can disrupt a test.
Though transferring results on disks, rather than over a network, slows down the counting process, it is still faster than traditional paper ballot tabulation. And better yet, there is no subjectivity, no partially poked holes or pregnant chads.
Last year, Fairfax County, Va., which has 810 touch-screen voting computers, needed a recount in a state Senate race in which one candidate led by 32 votes out of 32,000 cast. Officials merely checked the votes on printouts generated by the voting computers.
After the four-hour recount, the total changed by just two votes -- both on paper absentee ballots.
"This would certainly reduce the number of recounts," said Brad Clark, registrar of voters in Alameda County, one of seven California counties that uses touch-screen machines. "It counts what it counts."
The problem with the touch-screen computers is their cost -- about $3,500 to $5,000 each. Sophisticated options, like programming several languages for voters who don't speak English, could elevate the cost to $10,000.
Computerizing Los Angeles County's 5,000-precinct election system could thus carry a hefty pricetag of more than $200 million, said Doug Lewis, executive director of The Election Center.
Smaller governments would have to pay far less, but probably would have a tougher time affording the upgrade.
In Mercer County, Pa., which has 120,000 people, a computerized system would cost about $1 million.
"We have voting machines that are so old they don't make parts for them anymore. We fix some with duct tape and twine," said County Commissioner Brian Shipley. "The cost of a new system gets pushed to the back when you have other things to pay for."
Although the distaste over what happened in Florida has led state and federal legislators to propose funding for an election overhaul, many county governments likely would oppose new standards that would come along with that, said Gordon Bowen, political science professor at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.
"To mandate a new system would be very difficult because they are running up against years and years of local tradition," Bowen said. "Behind closed doors I think you would hear the politicians say they would get their ox gored for trying."
Voting over the Internet, with the same mouse-clicking ease that allows consumers to buy everything from yachts to Yahtzee, has been tried in only two official elections: Arizona's Democratic primary in March and a Defense Department pilot program with 200 overseas Americans in November. The Pentagon is expected to evaluate its project next month.
Arizona Democrats hired Election.com, an online election company based in Garden City, N.Y., to run their primary.
More than 86,000 Democrats cast ballots, 80 percent via Election.com, up from 13,000 in 1996. Officials said the highest turnout increase was in Hispanic and American Indian neighborhoods.
However, the Voting Integrity Project, a nonpartisan voters' rights group, is suing the Arizona Democratic Party, claiming the election discriminated against poor people without Internet access.
Bob Taylor, an Election.com vice president, argues that Internet voting is safe for several reasons. For one, an intrusion system verifies that no hacker is trying to pose as the election Web site.
Taylor also believes the system is not subject to attack by a computer virus. And corrupting the votes while they are transmitted to a central server would also be nearly impossible, he said.
"This system isn't up very long, only that day, so not only would you have to know how to (hack) it, you would have to do it in a very short amount of time," Taylor said.
However, David Jefferson, a computer security researcher who advises federal election officials on Internet voting, said Web sites are too easily corrupted, copied or brought down. An attack spread by a virus could change a vote without the voter's knowledge.
"Unless you are extremely Internet-savvy and you bother to check those things, you will never know," Jefferson said.
Several logistical problems also stand in the way, including how to verify a voter's identity over a home computer. Supporters of Internet elections suggest passwords and identification codes could be mailed to voters.
"The problem is that the password and ID are only as secure as the mail and only as good as you can prove that people aren't selling those passwords," explained Bob Weiss, owner of Password Crackers, a Maryland-based company that helps people who have lost or forgotten their passwords.
To many people, just about any change at all would be a good start.
"After this election I'm sure we will have to move in some direction pretty rapidly because it's certainly not satisfactory now," said Roberta Jensen, 72, of Sun City, Ariz., who voted in the online primary. "I don't think there is a man alive after this that still likes his punch-card ballot."
On the Net:
Election Center: http://www.electioncenter.net
Arizona Democratic Party: http://www.azdem.com
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