Honolulu Hosts Nation's First All-Digital Election

HONOLULU -- Voting used to be a community affair, conducted with paper ballots at schools, churches and other public venues. Then the electronic age arrived and voting moved to computer touch screens at the usual polling places. 

Now Honolulu has just taken its first tentative steps in transforming voting into a home activity.
Friday marked the last day of Web-based voting for neighborhood advisory board seats in what is being touted as the nation's first all-digital election. 

City officials say the experiment appears to have generated few problems; it has even saved the financially strapped city around $100,000. 

"It is kind of the wave of the future ... so we're kind of glad in a way that we got to be the ones who initiated it," said Bryan Mick, a community relations specialist with the city Neighborhood Commission. 

Web voting will make it easier for civilian and military voters who live overseas or those who just don't have time in their busy days to visit a polling place, said Lori Steele, head of Everyone Counts, the San Diego, Calif.-based firm chosen by the commission to run the election. 

"There are vast numbers of voters that really struggle with the current processes of voting," she said. 

However, Web voting cannot be used in city council or state elections because state law bars voting systems that do not include a vote verification process, said Warren Stewart, legislative policy director for Verified Voting Foundation, a nonpartisan advocacy group. 

The commission's move to digital voting was dictated more by a lack of money than a strong desire to use the Internet in new ways. 

For at least two decades, the agency conducted mail-only voting, paying the postage to send the ballots to voters and to get them back. In a moneysaving effort two years ago, the commission gave voters the option of choosing candidates by mail or through the Web, but most voters chose mail ballots, Mick said. 

Then the Honolulu City Council cut the Neighborhood Commission's election budget from $220,000 to $180,000. That prompted the agency to shift to all-digital voting for this year's races. Preliminary calculations show Web voting may cost only $80,000, Mick said. 

Before the first day of balloting May 6, voters living in 22 neighborhood board districts with contested races received a passcode that, along with the last four digits of their Social Security number, gave them access to an election Web site created by Everyone Counts. 

Voting also was conducted by phone, with results electronically fed into the same computer system that collected the Web votes. The balloting ended at midnight Friday, and results should be ready Tuesday, Mick said. 

Electronic voting systems, such as touch-screen machines at polling places, were once considered the answer to hanging chads and fouled paper ballots but have since been loudly criticized for lacking adequate protections and reliable verification procedures. 

Internet voting differs in that voting can be done from home or the office. Steele noted the computer codes in her firm's system are available for auditing, and that each completed ballot is heavily encrypted, as is the overall system. The process is more secure than that used in Internet banking, she added. 

Four people selected by the Neighborhood Commission hold passwords to access the decryption keys, and at least three of them must be present to obtain the keys. 

"The ability to get into the system and change even one vote is nearly impossible," Steele contended. "Certainly, if it took a room full of computer scientists and PhDs weeks and weeks, it would only be one vote that they finally got into. By then, the election would be over." 

Everyone Counts has used the system for numerous private and foreign elections, such as the presidential primary held last year by Democrats Abroad, an arm of the Democratic Party that represents overseas voters. 

Still, using the Internet as a voting medium introduces risks, Stewart said. 

For example, he said, when a person buys merchandise on the Web, the transaction is linked to that customer. But secret ballot requirements prohibit anything that links votes with a particular voter. 

And unlike traditional paper ballots, Web voting produces no paper record that can verify voter selections without identifying the voter, Stewart added. 

"Elections, the foundations of our democracy, are actually currently not at risk of cybercrimes, cyberthreats," he said. "Why would we want to take it there for just some kind of convenience?" 

Roy G. Saltman, a consultant on election policy and technology, said that since Honolulu's neighborhood board elections are relatively less important than statewide or national elections, cheating is less likely. 

"You're dealing with a very small application with low consequences," said Saltman, author of "The History and Politics of Voting Technology: In Quest of Integrity and Public Confidence." "So the risk (of fraud) is probably quite small."