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Florida voters cast critical ballots online

(IDG) -- The U.S. presidential race hinges on the electoral outcome in Florida, where the difference is being measured in hundreds out of the millions of votes submitted -- some of which were ballots cast over the Internet.

A pilot program developed by the U.S. Department of Defense allowed about 200 service people stationed overseas, their families and some other civilians to vote online. Two of the five regions taking part in the experiment -- Okaloosa and Orange -- are in Florida.

The U.S. Department of Defense administrates the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which helps service members and civilians stationed or traveling overseas cast ballots in Federal elections, said Susan Hansen, a public affairs officer for the Secretary of Defense's office. "After the last general election in 1996, it became clear that people had trouble receiving their ballots from their local voting offices," she said.


The program chose to explore Internet voting as an alternative for people with computer access, she said. Five areas were chosen for the test program; the state of South Carolina, Dallas county in Texas, Weber county in Utah, and the two counties in Florida. "We'll assess this project for reliability, ease of use ... but I have no way of knowing if these votes are the ones that will decide this election," Hansen said.

The absentee ballot vote of service people could turn out to be the executioner's ax hanging over the head of the two presidential candidates -- more so over that of Democratic Vice President Al Gore than that of Texas Republican Governor George Bush. Service people tend to be far more conservative voters than the general U.S. population. As absentee ballots trickle in, they may end up securing Bush's infinitesimal lead.

The online military voters mostly went to Bush, said Pat Hollern, Okaloosa county supervisor of elections, declining to give specific names or vote tallies. Some didn't vote, she said. Some left the service. And two special forces operatives were in "classified locations" where neither the long virtual arm of the Internet nor even regular mail could reach.

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"Two-thirds voted from home," she said. "When (absentee) ballots were available to everyone, they could download their own ballot, but only their own. When they got online to vote, that's the only ballot they could get." All the ballots, in encrypted form, were returned by Monday night, she said.

If online voting were commonplace, we might already have known the answer in Florida, said Jonathan Zittrain, head of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. But he noted the potential for serious changes in the national political dialogue as a result. "Would it lead to a different kind of election? A rolling vote, maybe? You can imagine the drive to get out the vote as the numbers came in," he said.

Security is also of paramount concern. The possibility of a 'hacktivist' altering the vote count, particularly in a close race like this one, concerns those looking at online voting.

"The project was done on a very small scale, in a very controlled environment," said Lorrie Cranor, a security systems researcher for AT&T Corp. "This experiment was small enough and controlled enough not to raise serious questions, but given the closeness of the race in Florida ..." Craynor paused. "Nobody thought it would be this close."

While she said she would be surprised if there were any problem with the online votes in Florida, she cited significant security hurdles to making an online vote work on a larger scale. The home PC would have to be made more secure, and users would have to know how to install what could be complicated software.

"Any system we could build today that would come close to the needed level of security for a national election would be very hard for an average person to use," according to Cranor. "We couldn't use standard browsers, and we would need a way to authenticate users, like passwords or encryption keys."

The military got around the complexities of e-voting by drilling their candidates. Pat Hollern and the test subjects are buddies now, a consequence of frequent e-mail conversations.

Security isn't the only concern. Online voting could change the nature of our democracy, according to some observers.

"The other issue it raises is the kind of speech we'll hear. The strongest speech people see when they're voting is the speech when they're going to the ballot," Zittrain said, describing the gauntlet of banner-waving, placard-carrying, leaflet-distributing supporters of a cause outside polling places.

On the other hand, there's no hundred-yard rule in cyberspace. Internet voting could draw sums like this year's $3 billion national cost of campaigning from TV and radio into online advertisements, as pervasive as any one would see in Pennsylvania, or Michigan -- or Florida.

Many of Florida's online voting test subjects avoided the onslaught of campaign advertising thanks to their distant locations in places like the Middle East and Korea. But they still called the Sunshine state home.

"They weren't strangers coming in at the last minute," said Okaloosa county supervisor Hollern, caught on the phone between a return to the ballot counting room and shooing a gaggle of overzealous reporters out the door. The Defense Department sought volunteers for the pilot program through base newspapers and Internet advertisements. "We already had their information, their signatures, they were eligible for absentee ballots."

The Florida panhandle county of Okaloosa earned a berth in the experiment with its proximity to military voters at Eglin Air Force Base, some technical expertise in its elections staff and "a desire to take on more," said Hollern. The voting assistance project gave her office a Dell server and voting software, but there were significant issues to overcome, she said. The voting system itself was cumbersome, and she had to put in about $2,500 in gear, including an ISDN line, to accommodate the project.

"This is not a voting system. This is an alternative absentee-ballot submission system," Hallern said. "This is the beginning. This is the Wright brothers airplane. This will be improved."

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