The Internet as Polling Place--Now There's a Subject for Debate

The Internet has the potential to be many different things--telephone system, publishing medium, radio pipeline, video-conferencing network--but one of its most intriguing capacities is also one of its least-noticed. Thus, in this election season, the time seems right to look not merely at what the Internet has to say about politics, but at how the Internet could become your polling place.

It's now technically possible to conduct secure, secret balloting over the Internet, and before very long it will be practically possible as well. Internet voting would be cheap, fast and flexible, offering the ability to conduct not just the either/or elections of today, but more complex "declared strategy" elections in which voters could express relative preferences for several candidates.

Consider the implications for California, with its love of ballot initiatives. If, down the road a ways, people could sit in front of the TV and click their choices with something like today's remote-control device, it might be possible to vote on many more things. Could Internet voting be a way for the will of the people to break free of money and manipulation? Or would moving away from a republican system only mean government by whim? Do we really want this much participatory democracy?

With the 1996 election season in full swing, these questions seem worth raising. Voter turnout is chronically low, and people seem frustrated by the current system. The Internet holds out the prospect of significant electoral change.

Internet voting has its roots in the work of David Chaum, the digital cash guru who now lives in Amsterdam. Using dual-key encryption and a clever system of digital "blinding," Chaum, who holds a doctorate from UC Berkeley, came up with a way for ballots to be cast via the Internet such that each vote is unassailably legitimate, each voter can vote only once, and no vote can be connected to any given voter. Chaum later used the same basic idea to develop digital cash, about which you can learn more at http://www.digicash.com.

Internet voting in presidential campaigns is a long way off, of course, but last year, as part of a computer science project, Princeton University conducted a student government election via the Internet. (You can read more about it at http://www.princeton.edu/bpd/voting/.

Building on Chaum's ideas, Washington University graduate student Lorrie Cranor has developed an Internet voting system called Sensus that would permit private, secure voting using the World Wide Web.

"A system like this would make it possible to vote on everything," says Cranor, who acknowledges that this might not be progress. "As much as people criticize Congress, I'm not sure we could do any better."

Cranor says she expects Internet elections, and particularly her 'declared strategy" voting--in which voters can express a preference for someone who is unlikely to win without fear of wasting their vote--to take hold in far-flung private organizations, committee elections and the like before it finds its way onto the national stage. But the benefits of remote voting were amply demonstrated in Oregon, where a mail-only election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Bob Packwood, who resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct, raised voter turnout and saved the state $1 million. (Rep. Ron Wyden won by a narrow margin, becoming the state's first Democratic senator in nearly 30 years.)

"Before that happened, I'd have put the probability of electronic elections much lower," says Cranor, whose home page is at http://dworkin.wustl.edu/lorracks/.

On the other hand, remote balloting has its pitfalls. Absentee ballots are generally considered more prone to tampering, and in the past have raised suspicions in communities dominated by old-time political machines.

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Even if you can't use the Internet to vote in the upcoming California primary, the Net still has its uses for voters in this election season. My own favorite campaign-oriented Web site is AllPolitics (http://allpolitics.com/), which offers a meaty stew of news, backgrounders, images and sounds from the campaign trail.

The product of Time and CNN, AllPolitics is divided into broad categories--News, Issues, Candidates, Intelligence and so forth--but you can also search for what you're after. I visited just before the Super Tuesday primaries and found well-prepared profiles of the states and a pointed article about the benefits and hazards facing politicians who endorse presidential candidates, as well as the latest campaign news and delegate totals.

There are also some good political cartoons--although, as much as anything else, the cartoons illustrate the main problem with this site, which is that it can be a little slow. On the other hand, the price is right: AllPolitics, which has ads, is free to users.

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One of the best things about AllPolitics is that issues aren't slighted. First, there's a spreadsheet of top issues such as abortion, affirmative action and welfare, plotting the positions of each Republican candidate against the others. For more depth, click on any of the major issues and you'll get a reasonably evenhanded analysis, along with Time/CNN polling information about how most Americans feel.

For a really good time, take the Candidate Rate-O-Matic quiz, which asks a series of multiple choice questions about where you stand on the issues. You also get to indicate how important you consider each of the categories. When you're done, AllPolitics sorts the candidates according to how well they match your views, giving each a score. The closer to zero, the closer the match. I took the test and couldn't get a candidate within 3,000, which isn't surprising, I guess, since (full disclosure) I'm a Democrat just like almost everyone else I know in the mainstream media. Still, it is a good way to clarify your thinking.

On a more mercenary level, AllPolitics sports a link to a Money magazine feature allowing you to evaluate how you'd do under the tax plans proposed by Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan and Rep. Dick Armey. The evaluations are quite rich in context, too, letting you see how you'd fare if the plans were adopted as offered, or if the proposed rates were increased to keep the country from going further into debt.

There are, of course, links to the candidates' home pages, though I confess that these leave me cold. "Test your knowledge of trivia about Senator Dole!" says Dole's page. "Design your own campaign poster! Download exciting screen savers and desktop images! Send a friend a personalized Dole postcard!" If this is your idea of rainy day fun, visit http://www.dole96.com/.

Pat Buchanan's page (http://www.buchanan.org/), which portrays him in a sort of 19th-century tableau of flags and gold leaf, seemed even more bizarre. I followed one of the links and learned that "Pat Buchanan is Our Braveheart!" The Steve Forbes Home Page is at http://www.forbes96.com/.

For a rather more irreverent perspective, check out http://www.doonesbury.com.

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Daniel Akst welcomes messages at dan.akst@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.well.com/~akst/.

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