Tue, 26 May 2009 14:25:41 +0000 – The election news from Hawaii seems both interesting and unobjectionable: Honolulu has became the first jurisdiction to run an "all digital" election--that is, all the ballots were cast on the Internet, or by telephone. After the voting was finished on Friday, the Associated Press headlinepainted the Aloha State as e-pioneers: "Honolulu's Internet vote considered 1st in nation."
For its part, The Honolulu Advertiser praised the digital balloting, calling it "a worthwhile experiment that can help Hawai'i move toward a more efficient, electronic polling system for all of its political contests."
The Honolulu elections were for neighborhood councils; they had no effect on any state or federal offices. Yet it's easy to see a precedent in the making here: If 115,000 people voted from the comfort of their own homes, saving the city $100,000, then how much hassle and money would be saved if the city deployed more "digital democracy" in the future? For city elections? For statewide elections? And, most consequentially, for federal elections?
The San Diego-based firm that oversaw the Honolulu balloting, Everyone Counts, proclaims, "Multi-channel elections provide accessible, transparent and verifiably secured choice--no matter where in the world your voters are on election day. Everyone Counts brings a whole new world of accessibility and integrity to elections."
In fact, Everyone Counts has been running digital elections since the 1990s. Just last year it oversaw the vote-counting for Democrats Abroad, the arm of the Democratic Party that represents overseas Democrats.
And of course, proponents of online voting argue that it is merely a logical extension of postal voting. Oregon mandated mail-in balloting in 1998, and Washington State soon followed suit. And across the country, the surge in absentee voting--tens of millions in 2008--has created a de facto mail-in election process.
So if voters can mail their ballots in, why can't they call them in, or e-mail them in? Such digital demands will become louder in the wake of arecent reportfrom the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which found that less than half of all absentee ballots from overseas military personnel were counted in the 2006 elections. "One thing is clear: At every level of government, we need to do a better job," declared Commission Chair Donetta Davidson to the Stars and Stripes newspaper. "We must make sure all eligible voters are getting their opportunities." Nobody is going to argue the merits of military voting, of course, but after this report, it's going to be nigh impossible to argue the merits of the current system of balloting-by-mail.
Indeed, those who oppose telephone and internet voting are at risk of being overwhelmed by the tide of technology, as happened to buggywhip makers, typewriter manufacturers--and newspapers. In a culture that celebrates the participatory energy of "American Idol," a "cool" kind of voting is inevitable for politics, too. As Honolulu city official Bryan Mick told the AP in the wake of his city's digital democratizing: "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."
Today, in this information age, the conditions for digital voting are ripe. The telephone population of America is more than 500 million units, fixed-line and mobile, in a country of about 305 million. And some 223 million Americans enjoy Internet access, the majority of which is broadband.
So if the technology is there, what's the hangup? The big question, of course, is who is at the other end of the machine--be it telephone or computer. Who verifies the voters?
Long before the Internet, the two political parties routinely accused each other of vote fraud.
Democrats point to the Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election as a leading indicator of Republican malfeasance; they turned then-secretary of state Katherine Harris into a devil figure. And they hurled similar accusations against Republicans in Ohio in 2004, focused mostly on then-secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell. The mantric word for Democrats is "voter suppression"; it's an article of faith among Democrats that Republicans, nearly half a century after the Voting Rights Act, are still figuring out ways to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning poor people and minorities.
For their part, Republicans point the finger right back at Democrats, and their left-wing allies, such as ACORN. The Wall Street Journal's John Fund wrote a whole book on vote fraud, entitled bluntly, Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy, dwelling on the activities of ACORN in particular.
ACORN, along with law professors and the mainstream media, is at the spearhead of a broad coalition advocating full voting privileges forfelons, the mentally incompetent, and those who come to the polls without any sort of valid identification.
And of course, the 2008 victory of Barack Obama, who rose from community organizer to the presidency, would seem to support the argument that Democrats gain the most from the full mobilization of those not otherwise well connected to society. Maybe that's why almost all of the numerous allegations of vote fraud in 2008--in Missouri, California, Washington, and Nevada, just for starters--involved Democrats.
So if vote fraud is already a problem, what will happen when the "vote" is simply an electronic pulse, that could have come, potentially, from anywhere in the US--or around the world? Who will oversee the e-voting process? And who will oversee the overseers?
In 39 states, the chief elections officeris the state's secretary of state. In the wake of the 2004 elections, smart Democrats launched theSecretary of State Project; a look at the Web site today shows that it flashes pictures of devil-figures Katherine Harris and Kenneth Blackwell, both of whom have been out of office for more than two years. The site tells visitors--and, more to the point, potential donors--that "a modest political investment in electing clean Secretaries of State is an efficient way to stop voter suppression."
Then the site adds, "In 2006, the SoS Project won five of seven races, helping reformers beat GOP operatives in Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, Nevada, and New Mexico." Perhaps the most visible of these new secretaries of state is Minnesota's Mark Ritchie, who has been a reliable ally to the senatorial ambitions of fellow Democrat Al Franken.
But of course, the high-tech nature of digital democracy adds a new layer of complexity, as well as mystery, to the voting process. In theory, the technology is completely neutral. But theoretical technology and practical politics are two different things. Diebold, a leading manufacturer of traditional voting machines, has come under repeated fire for alleged pro-Republican bias. But the complexity of a voting machine is nothing compared to the complexity of computers and the Internet.
The font of today's Net-based computer technology, of course, is California's Silicon Valley. And should those high-techsters be trusted to make neutral technological decisions? Maybe, but their obvious partisan bias might cause some to wonder. Barack Obama out-fundraised John McCain by a 5:1 marginfrom top computer executives, and the popular vote in Santa Clara County--the heart of Silicon Valley--was 69:28 last year; the voting in other high-tech enclaves, including San Francisco, Manhattan, and Boston, was even more lopsided.
But to repeat, Internet voting is coming. If Democratic techies dominate the research and development of new processes, that will be fine with Democrats. If Democratic secretaries of state adjudicate the implementation process, and the vote-counting, that, too, will be fine with Democrats. And if Net voting comes quicker to Democrat-leaning places than Republican-leaning places, well, that will likely be A-OK with Democrats.
But for Republicans, a Democrat-dominated e-vote system would be a swift road to political extinction.
So what's needed immediately is a completely fair and transparent process to examine all facets of the transition to Internet voting. And the only way to achieve that fairness and transparency is to create a rigorously bipartisan outfit to oversee the implementation of such technology, modeled after either the Federal Election Commission, or the private Commission on Presidential Debates.
But in the long run, conservatives and libertarians are going to have to come to grips with the issue of foolproof personal identification. Whether it's called a National I.D. Card, or something else, America needs some sure way of knowing who's who. Plenty of folks on the right will oppose such a measure as an invasion of privacy, or worse, but it's a plain fact that vote fraud cannot be squelched if vote-frauders cannot be identified.
And yet, if Republicans were ever to unite around a fraud-proof system, it would be instructive for them to watch the opposition Democrats. If Democrats, for their part, continued to oppose an I.D. system, that would be a strong indicator that Democrats think that they gain from the current I.D. anarchy.
Today, in 2009, e-voting is just a cloud on the Hawaii horizon. But a storm of disruptive technology is coming fast, and Republicans had better get ready.