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Master's Professional Reports Abstract

Internet voting: our future civic obligation.
Considine, Jonathan Welch
Report 2001 C765 Public Affairs Library.

Chapter 1. Introduction
The 2000 election cycle proved to be a banner season for hype surrounding the plausibility of Internet voting. The practice of enabling citizens to vote for candidates running for public office by means of casting a binding, secret ballot through the Internet is still an idea very much in its infancy. But the debacle in Florida stemming from the litigation and prolonged uncertainty of that state's presidential results have helped to fuel the desires of many politicians, pundits, and citizens for electoral reform. Internet voting represents the most complex, untested, and potentially dangerous of all those solutions currently under consideration. The surge in interest in and activity surrounding Internet voting comes as critical research on this topic is underway and important results are emerging. Analysts are already engaging in debate over the social and political implications of Internet voting. In addition, for-profit companies are emerging with the technology necessary to run online elections. Consequently, several important and informative experiments were conducted during the 2000 election cycle to provide policymakers with key first lessons. Those lessons will begin to decipher how the process works, who is participating, what might have gone wrong, and whether this is a credible concept that will have staying power. The chief concern about Internet voting is the potential for fraud in the manipulation of election results, and the difficulty in detecting whether those results have in fact been altered. Other important concerns include the security of the process, the inherent civic disengagement with a system that presumably could make the voting booth obsolete, and the potential to exclude certain groups of people that do not have adequate access to and understanding of this new technology. Such consequences are so severe that many observers have recommended a cautious advance along any path that would lead to the formal introduction of Internet voting based at polling stations. In addition, the majority of analysts looking at Internet voting have concluded that casting ballots from home or the office is far too insecure to consider at any time in the near future, if ever.

But can such thoughtful arguments slow down the growth of an industry that could generate $10-40 billion annually? Furthermore, as e-commerce continues to grow, more people will wonder why elections can't replicate secure, online shopping. In the words of the National Workshop on Internet Voting, "[t]he explosion of the Internet culture in the United States and elsewhere has caused many to question why we should not be able to cast our ballots in the same manner as we order books on the Web from home or from work." Many political and business leaders sense that the wholesale unveiling of Internet voting is only a couple of election cycles away. Governor Gray Davis of California, who might be described as one of the more high-profile political advocates of this technology, sees a clear future for online elections. "I am convinced that within five to seven years Americans will be casting their ballots on the Internet, just as easily as they can buy a stock on E-Trade today." The problem with predictions like this, though, is that e-voting is a far different and more complex transaction and one that needs a much higher level of security than e-trading, e-commerce, or even other functions of e-government.

Whether Internet voting is inevitable, and that remains uncertain, the dialogue over its benefits and shortcomings has been intensified thanks to the confusion during the 2000 Florida presidential recount. For now, policymakers must ponder several important questions. What will voters gain from Internet voting? Can these systems be made completely secure from internal or external attacks that would threaten to interrupt the process or manipulate results? Where does public opinion lie on this new technology?

This thesis addresses many of these questions whose answers are critical to arguments on both sides of the debate over Internet voting. Ultimately, a cautious, piecemeal approach toward Internet voting seems most logical.