Online voting, once considered science fiction, will become a reality when the Department of Defense employs its Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (search) next year. 

The SERVE program will allow as many as 100,000 uniformed service members and overseas citizens to cast their ballots in the presidential primaries and general election. 

“This will likely be one of the most significant studies of Internet voting, and we should learn a great deal about the effectiveness of the Internet for registration and voting,” said R. Michael Alvarez, a political science professor at Caltech and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (search), in a recent statement.

When it's completely up and running, eligible voters thousands of miles from home will be provided with links to Web sites offering news and information about the candidates. American servicemen and women will be able to vote from virtually anywhere in the world, provided they have access to a Windows-based computer with Internet capabilities. 

The $22 million project comes on the heels of the controversial 2000 presidential election, in which significant numbers of military voters' ballots were disqualified because they lacked postmarks.

Nearly all of SERVE's costs are covered by the Department of Defense, although state and county governments may cover some technological and logistical expenses.  However, such local costs may qualify for federal funding under Title I of the Help America Vote Act (search), a public law designed to improve cooperation between state and federal election agencies, according to the program's Web site.

Despite the close interaction between such agencies, SERVE is not a panacea for overseas voting woes. 

The technology is currently only available to voters with homes in select counties in a handful of states. Furthermore, Pentagon officials must accommodate various local election procedures and communicate the availability of the service to citizens in remote locations abroad.

The primary concern, however, is security. Although the data sent via the Internet is encrypted and can be decoded only by local election administration systems, many experts fear that hackers may compromise voting integrity.

“One would hope that, if anyone can design a hacker-proof Internet voting system, the Pentagon could do it,” said Nathaniel Persily, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “I think most people who have analyzed this issue, however, do not have confidence yet that such systems could be built.”

In a Pentagon statement, however, Federal Voting Assistance Program (search) director Polli Brunelli reassured voters.

 “We are working closely with state and local election officials to ensure that the integrity of the electoral process is maintained," Brunelli said. 

In addition, the program's Web site informs voters that the government has plans to employ private “white hat” hackers who will detect network vulnerabilities. A team of companies has also been hired by the Department of Defense to provide a secure online voting infrastructure.

The concept of Internet voting has great implications for the future of voter participation and democracy. Defense Department officials, along with experts from the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (search), will evaluate the success of the SERVE project and report their findings to the secretary of defense, the U.S. Congress, and state Legislatures in 2005. 

Presumably, if all goes well, the project will be expanded to include Americans abroad with residences in all fifty states. 

Perhaps, one day, the SERVE system will also give millions of citizens living in the United States the opportunity to cast their ballots from the comfort of their own homes, thus eliminating the need to travel to local polling places, say experts. 

SERVE “could provide the foundation for increasing accessibility for other groups, including the disabled and all others who find it difficult to go to a polling place and vote on election day,” Alvarez said.

“By building on what is learned from this project, and by understanding how to conduct secure and accessible elections on the Internet, it is possible that all Americans could someday be able to vote using the Internet. And if that happens, we may see changes in who votes and how political campaigns are conducted,” he said.