- 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, VoteHere.net, of Kirkland, Wash., is running the
- 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
- 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
- ''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.