Tired of Chads? A Handful of Companies Are Rolling Out Internet Voting Technology

A highly specialized subset of the Internet industry wants to put those infamous dimpled chads far behind you and out of the election process.

A highly specialized subset of the Internet industry wants to put those infamous dimpled chads far behind you and out of the election process.

Makers of Internet-based voting systems say they offer a faster, more accurate method of counting votes. Such firms as Election.com, Safevote Inc. and VoteHere.net demonstrated their offerings in unofficial votes shadowing the 2000 elections.

Meta Group estimates the cost of deploying an Internet-based voting system nationwide at between $175 million and $250 million. The market watcher maintains that such a system "would eliminate voting for more than one candidate and ensure instantaneous, accurate counting."

But a few things have to happen before that vision of national e-voting becomes a reality. For one, the states need to certify Internet voting systems before they can be used in official elections. And before certification can take place, the states need to develop certification standards. Such standards dont exist at the moment, although industry executives say California and Florida are in the process of creating Internet voting standards. In addition, the Federal Elections Commission and the National Association of State Election Directors "are in the process of developing standards," adds Mark Strama, VP of government affairs at Election.com. The Internet-voting companies themselves are working with government officials to develop those standards.

VoteHere.net, meanwhile, is taking a two-pronged approach to the certification issue. Like others in this space, the company is working with states on Internet voting certification standards. But VoteHere.net also has applied to certify its Internet voting technology in California and Florida under existing standards for electronic voting, according to a company spokeswoman.

One key issue with state certification is security, and opinions differ sharply on that subject. The e-voting vendors and some industry analysts believe the technology provides adequate security and privacy. Safevote.com recently invited hackers to break into its shadow elections in Contra Costa County, Calif., and claims its system was not compromised.

But Rob Clyde, VP of engineering at Axent Technologies, a security products vendor, believes Internet voting technology needs to be proven over a longer period of time before it can be deployed with confidence in a presidential election. He suggests the technology could build a track record of trust in private elections, such as stockholder proxy votes. "I dont think there is any reason to move faster than caution would warrant," Clyde says. "Take it a step at a time."

Amy Santenello, a research analyst with Meta Groups Electronic Government Strategies service, says that numerous Internet voting pilots are likely by 2004, noting that "progressive" counties will adopt the technology. Meta Group estimates that a national Web-based voting system would require 150 individual Web sites employing a distributed computing method. But how fast and how far Internet voting will go is an open question. Security concerns, cost and local politics could prove inhibiting factors. States and counties will have the final word on bits vs. chads.