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Washington State Online Election Doesn't Click

 

The largest e-vote ever held in the United States for public office can boast a turnout of 0.23 percent.

The race for conservation district supervisor in King County, Wash., was conducted almost entirely online, with votes able to be cast from Feb. 15 to March 15. With 1 million registered voters eligible to cast a ballot, 2,299 did.

"I think it was a raging success," said Sara Hemphill of the King Conservation District, "even though we had fewer voters than we did last year."

Voting in America has traditionally been a very public show of democracy from the lines at polling places to the poring over ballots in front of campaign observers and the media. Who can forget Florida's hanging chads in the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore or Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in spelling bee in Alaska last year?

Election officials are always looking for something better, cheaper and able to create more voter participation. So even though the numbers were down in King County, the convenience factor is way up. 

"Last year I had to drive (to the polls) and probably wait about 40 minutes because there was a line out the library," said voter Cory Huskinson, "This year I just quickly did it online."

Three supervisors serving three year terms means the conservation district race is conducted every year. This year's 2,299 electronic ballots are roughly half as many as were cast the old-fashioned way in person at the polls last year for the same office. The winning candidate, Eric Nelson, earned 1,292 votes. 

One selling point for online elections is that they are much less expensive to conduct than either voting at polls or voting by mail. The King Conservation District, however, spent the same on the online election as their traditional elections.

There were also some security hoops to jump through. Voters had to use security codes which were emailed to them after they signed up to vote online. They also were required to mail, fax, scan and email signatures to Election Trust, the private company paid to conducted the election.

The purpose was to allow workers to compare their signature to their voter registration signature.

John Bodin from Election Trust says the system worked. 

"With the proper due diligence on the front end and eyeballs on the servers during the election," Bodin said. "You can ensure that the data transaction will be secure end to end."

Not everyone is convinced. Computer security experts say the biggest threat of fraud is not from hackers, but an inside job. 

"If I compromise a computer, I control all the activities that go on in a computer," said Samuel Bucholtz of Casaba Security. "So it doesn't matter what you're doing or how you're trying to vote."

Election Trust officials insist there is proper oversight. The government agency overseeing the election has full access to their programs and codes and can be watching as the votes come in.

Interestingly, those charged by the government to monitor the election are required to sign non-disclosure agreements with the company hired to run the election because the programs are patented and keeping them from competitors is paramount for Election Trust and others.

That worries Bev Harris who started BlackBox Voting.Org when electronic voting machines started to be used. 

"The public must be able to see and authenticate (elections) without the need for special expertise," Harris said. "The minute you say, 'Well, you have to have a special expertise,' you transfer control from the many to the few."

Despite the concerns, Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed sees plenty of potential. He says online elections can be done securely and he has supported bills that would make it possible for military personnel who are overseas to vote that way. The bills died in the Legislature.

Europe is actually ahead of the U.S. on online voting. Estonia has been using it for public office elections for years. In France, then-presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy was nominated by his party in a partially online vote. He went on to win the general election. 

Other countries, however, are slamming on the breaks. A German court ruled online elections still have too many security questions and not enough public oversight to be allowed.

Dan Springer joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in August 2001 as a Seattle-based correspondent.

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