Online Voting Closer Than Imagined

Casting ballots via the Internet has dramatically increased turnout overseas, and that has some dreaming about possibilities stateside

It's a chilly March morning in Paris, and you're sitting in a cafe on the Boulevard Saint-Germain with a croissant and espresso on the way. Your iPhone buzzes. It's a message from Barack Obama reminding expatriates to cast their primary ballots.

"Please remember to vote for change," he writes. "It's time to reclaim our country."

You open an e-mail from Democrats Abroad, follow a link, punch in a 10-digit ballot number and your eight-digit PIN, then tap in a vote for Obama and hit "send." Your croissant still hasn't arrived.

If you think online voting won't begin in 2012, you're right: It's happening now. This scenario already played out in a special Democratic presidential primary last February as tens of thousands of expatriates voted via the Internet for the first time ever. Now, half a dozen states are gearing up to allow military and overseas voters to cast their ballots online in general elections as early as this year.

That flexibility is long overdue, say vendors and voting rights advocates who point out that America lags behind Europe in willingness to experiment with new election technology. Britain, Switzerland, Australia, Estonia and others have dabbled in e-voting. And Latvia will begin letting all citizens cast their ballots online in March.

The technology has been ready for some time, said Lori Steele, CEO of Everyone Counts, a San Diego-based online voting company that has run Internet elections for the British cities Stratford-on-Avon in 2003 and Swindon in 2007 and for Australian troops serving overseas, also in 2007. There's a pressing need for innovation: A third of all states rely so heavily on snail mail that voters abroad have little time to cast absentee ballots, a recent Pew Center on the States study revealed.

What holds the U.S. back? In part, it's the ghosts of elections past, said Nick Handy, Washington state's elections director.

"The hang-up, in my opinion, is not technology," Handy said. "The hang-up is acceptance by voters. There's a tremendous distrust of anything electronic, and we've got really strong advocacy groups who really want to vote on a piece of paper."

Handy is pushing to offer e-voting for residents overseas and troops stationed abroad, and a bill that would untie his agency's hands will be introduced in the state legislature this week. But some in the Evergreen State -- which is no stranger to technology, as the home of Microsoft -- are wary of moving online too quickly. Proposals to let voters register online and allow candidates to file via the Internet took several years to win over critics who feared fraud would ensue. Most states are taking a wait-and-see approach, since no elections administrator wants to be the first to preside over an e-voting disaster, said John Lindback, Oregon's director of elections.

"Other jurisdictions are going to have to plow the ground, so to speak," Lindback said.

Right now, the chance to crank up expatriate and military turnout by a few percentage points makes online voting an interesting footnote. The possibility that the U.S. could open Internet voting to stateside absentee voters -- or even follow Latvia's lead and allow all voters to cast their ballots online -- is what really keeps election junkies up at night.

Very early evidence indicates that online voting drastically increases turnout. Before 2007, just 22 percent of Australian soldiers' ballots made it Down Under in time to be counted, but when an Internet voting option was introduced, that figure rose to 75 percent, Steele said. And e-voting may attract new demographics that haven't voted previously: After Democrats Abroad unveiled online voting, turnout shot up tenfold over the group's 2004 numbers, according to Meredith Gowan Le Goff, the Democrats Abroad international vice chairwoman for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

"Someone came up to me and said, 'My dad was so excited because he got to vote from Indonesia in your primary,'" said Le Goff, who lives in France. "I thought it was a huge success."

Candidates will be sure to take notice. If a campaign e-mail could not only remind you to vote but direct you to a digital polling site, it would add a new wrinkle to electioneering, said David Nickerson, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame. Nickerson's research has shown that campaign e-mails have little to no impact on increasing turnout, but that might change.

"I don't think it's a slam dunk, but I think those are exactly the type of conditions in which it might work," he said.

E-voting could also save states money -- a lot of it. Oregon, which conducts its elections entirely by mail, spent $8.2 million on the 2008 primary and general elections, most of it for printing costs and postage; neighboring Washington spent about that much on its primary alone. Steele, meanwhile, said she can run an online election for half the cost of paper absentee ballots.

Other fringe benefits of online voting might be shorter lines at polling stations and fewer absentee ballots rejected for stray or incorrect marks, observers said. E-voting could also be deployed as a backup system in the event of natural disasters or terrorist attacks (Sept. 11, 2001 was the day of the New York City mayoral primary).

"If you could save money, be more secure and be more accurate, that's going to be a strong package," Handy said. "It's hard for me to picture in 2030 that people are still waiting in line to fill in a bubble on a paper ballot."

Until then, there are plenty of less radical digital solutions being dreamed up by elections officials, nonprofits and the private sector to make the wheels of democracy grind a little smoother.

Around the country, voter registration is still largely a paper-based system, but Arizona and Washington now let residents sign up to vote online. The appetite for e-registration in Washington state has been enormous, Handy said. Within minutes of putting the system online last January, the state was handling 30 registrations an hour; by the end of the year, it had registered 150,000 new voters. With 25 percent of new registrants opting to sign up online, Washington is saving money and man hours, Handy added.

"I get calls every week from my friends in other states asking for help with this," he said.

The problems that most often confront voters on Election Day are with registration or difficulty finding the right polling place; nearly two-thirds of the 100,000 calls received by voting rights advocate Election Protection on Election Day dealt with one of the two. But the election saw a quantum leap in new technology to help voters still stuck in the dead-tree age. Google noticed spikes in searches for registration and polling location information and responded with a Google Maps application that let users enter their home address to get directions to the polls. CREDO Mobile sent text messages to voters with polling location info. Election Protection used mapping tools to track problems at the polls and fight voter suppression.

Handy, a self-professed "low-tech guy," admitted that the times are a-changin'.

"It just doesn't seem right," he said, "in this electronic age, that we're relying on snail mail to get a ballot to someone in a remote area of Kenya."