Internet Voting To
Get First Test In Iowa
By Anne E. Kornblut
Boston Globe Staff

DES MOINES - Chet Culver is the blond-haired son of a US senator, a promising political star who is going to cause a sensation here tomorrow at the polls.
But Culver isn't running for election. He is running the election process itself. And the newfangled way he's doing it is making some people shudder.
For the first time in Iowa history, voters this year can cast their ballots over the Internet, part of an experimental program that could lay the foundation for electronic balloting in all 50 states. As the youngest secretary of state in the country, Culver, 33, is a leading champion of the techno-strategy, which he hopes will ultimately ''get more young people involved.''
Culver's test is entirely benign, with voters using Internet connections alongside their polling stations, and only after they have already cast ballots the traditional way. What is unnerving some political scientists is a related idea being debated nationwide: letting people elect officials over the Internet from home.
Because while an e-vote might attract a notoriously disengaged young crowd, the physical act of voting still captures the imagination of older advocates of civic life. To those who take it seriously, showing up at the polls is a treasured form of democratic expression, one that took two wars and six constitutional amendments to secure for everyone 18 and over.
Few would argue that clicking a computer mouse suggests a monumental act. Skeptics worry that people voting remotely over the Internet at home in pajamas, or while on the phone at work, might be as casual about picking a president as they are about surfing a Web site. At the same time, about half the country still has no mouse to click.
''It redistributes the balance of power,'' said John Streck, whose graduate research at the University of Iowa involved Internet voting. ''Certainly, it would add to convenience and add potential for greater voting blocs, but what would be the hurdles put in place? Who's got access to the Internet? On Indian reservations, it's still only 50 percent penetration of telephones.''
''It's the sort of thing where, if you don't know much about it, it sounds wonderful,'' said Lorrie Faith Cranor, a senior technical staff member at AT&T Research Labs, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Internet elections. ''The more you learn about it, the more you realize there are potential problems.''
The fundamental problem right now is technology; a full-scale national election over the Internet would simply be impossible with the systems currently on hand, Cranor said. As a result, some half-dozen technology units, including one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are racing to develop a system that would work.
The challenge is not only scope but also security: ensuring that voters remain anonymous and at the same time preventing voter fraud. In Iowa, that will be accomplished by a two-step system. First, voters receive a personal identification number, which they enter when they log in to vote. Then, the vote is encrypted and sent via the Internet to a computer clearinghouse, where it is ''read'' anonymously - ''like putting it in a trash compactor, and what comes out is the tabulation,'' says Jim Adler, whose company,, of Kirkland, Wash., is running the pilot program.
Such advanced research is being fueled by growing interest among public officials frustrated by dwindling numbers at the polls. In 1996, a full 100 million people eligible to vote did not do so, election specialists said, and in 1998 only 15 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 voted.
At least three states concerned with low voter turnout are considering tests similar to Iowa's, and two states, Washington and Virginia, have already conducted theirs, which they considered successful, with no security breaches. California has commissioned the most comprehensive study on Internet voting yet. Even the US Department of Defense is hoping to ''rock the vote.'' In August, military officials announced that some 350 military personnel will be able to send ballots back to their home states via the Internet in the 2000 general election.
''Given how low voter turnout is, it is hard to say that the ritual of going and standing in line at the polls is any longer anything that attracts people to voting,'' said Alan Brinkley, a history professor at Columbia University. ''I suppose one could argue that what one would see would be the diminishing of the civic quality of voting. ... .But there are already many ways people can vote without going to the polls.''
Proponents of Internet voting are not suggesting that the polling stations should be eliminated - at least not anytime soon. Culver envisions ''having both options available at the precincts'' in Iowa so busy people can drop in at any site in their voting district, a convenience format akin to absentee voting. Adler agrees that ''there is a good reason people like going to the polls.''
''There is a community there,'' Adler says. ''But there is also a community on the Internet. We really think it's going to be an adjunct and not a replacement for voting booths.''
Despite such confidence, simply adding the Internet to the list of voting devices may not be as easy as it sounds. Although states are charged with running their own elections, civil rights laws dating to the 1960s give the US Justice Department the power to intervene when a voting bloc is denied equal access to the polls. In several states, Justice officials are required to approve even minor voting law changes to guard against discrimination.
The US Commerce Department estimated in 1998 that only 26.2 percent of American households with computers actually used the Internet. Of those, an overwhelming number were white. As a result, the Federal Election Commission determined this September that ''it is highly unlikely that the Department of Justice would preclear any law implementing widespread Internet voting at the present time.''
''In spite of the phenomenal growth of Internet usage... access... must be made available to all Americans in order for it to play a significant role in the democratic process,'' the FEC paper said.
And yet as businesses move increasingly on line, and with thousands of Americans joining the Internet each month, it is hard to imagine politicians leaving the constituency untapped.
Culver certainly isn't.
He promised the Internet initiative from the beginning of his political career, declaring in a 1998 campaign speech that he would start ''exploring the use of technologies, such as the Internet, e-mail, and digital signatures, which will allow Iowa citizens and businesses better access to state government.'' Culver, a Democrat, insists the platform helped him win - although he had a helpful family legacy in his father, former Iowa Senator John Culver.
Culver moved swiftly to fulfill his promise, revamping the secretary of state Web site and launching a personal ''get out the vote'' tour in 55 counties throughout the state. On the road, he said, he discovered something even worse than low voter turnout: vacant ballots. Voter apathy was so severe, he said, no one wanted to run for the seats.
He said he was convinced: ''It's time to be creative.''
Iowa, which in 1972 launched its first-in-the-nation presidential caucus to counter a tide of voter alienation, seems receptive to the idea of experimenting with tomorrow's municipal elections. Last month, a Cedar Rapids newspaper editorial headline warned that Internet voting ''cheapens the value of the vote.'' But the thrust of the piece was that voters themselves were the problem. It demanded: ''How much farther must we stoop to make sure no citizen is forced to expend any effort to vote?''
''A master switch somewhere to turn on every personal computer might be nice,'' the editorial concluded. ''Sure says a lot about the value we place on our right to vote, doesn't it?''
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 11/01/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.