Super Tuesday primaries last week brought many surprises on the presidential election front -- along with one striking innovation. For the first time, a sizable set of Americans was able to vote in a meaningful election over the Internet. To be sure, they were not voting on American soil. It was Democrats abroad who became the innovators. Still, their Internet voting experiment exposes a few hazards to expanding the process in the general election.
In this case, responding to the logistical challenge of large numbers of Americans living and working overseas -- with unreliable mail service in many countries -- the Democratic Party decided to try online voting for one week, across Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. Voters could go to the Website votefromabroad.org to apply for an online ballot; once authenticated, the voter would get a pin number to vote. Republicans continued to rely on the old system of absentee balloting, conceding that the Democrats would have a higher turnout.
But the experiment in online voting had several pitfalls attached to it. The first is that the system only applies to the primary, run by the party. In the fall, when general election time rolls around, run by the states, voters abroad will all have to go back to absentee ballots, hoping they can get them on time, turn them around, and have the postal system work well enough to get the ballots to their homes to make them count. Voters who revel in the ease of Internet balloting will have to come down to earth, and many may be confused, or act too late.
Second, the use of online voting, despite the assurances of its administrators, remains insecure and prone to manipulation or fraud. At a variety of conferences over the past few years, with participation by the big technology players, virtually all the experts conceded that we are far away from having enough security to making i-voting a realistic alternative, with the results coming in over the Web. If Microsoft, Google, and the Defense Department can be hacked, so can voting machines.
Finally, Internet voting means the loss of the “zone of privacy” that voting at the polls provides, allowing spouses to look over their partners’ shoulders, or employers or pastors to do the same. For Americans abroad, that is inevitable, since most will cast absentee ballots in any case, with no zone of privacy. But for voters in the U.S., it is a real problem -- one growing in any event as absentee balloting and vote-by-mail take off around the country. Internet voting may prove irresistibly popular for its convenience, but if and when it expands beyond an occasional experiment, it will create its own set of problems.
— Norman J. Ornstein, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute