Online Voting for the Rest of Us: Internet –based ‘virtual booths’ are on the way

Our community recently bought a new car. Okay, for us, "new" means "preowned." (We found out no one says "used" anymore when it comes to second-hand cars." Anyway, it’s a 1995 Ford Escort. The digital dashboard clock was wrong, so I set out to reset it.

You might think that, given my experience with technology, I could figure out how to set a clock. You’d be wrong! Looking at the car manual revealed all I had to do was follow these simple but certainly not obvious steps: 1. Turn the radio on. 2.Press and hold in the "clock" button. 3. Press the "seek" button left to advance the hours and right to advance the minutes.

I hope my difficulties were not a harbinger of things to come vis--vis computerized voting.

I recently voted here in Florida, home of the dimpled chads of 2000, this time using an automated voting machine. It certainly was not as complex as setting the Ford Escort clock, but still at least one thing was not obvious to mehow do you write in a candidate’s name instead of selecting from among the ones listed? It could be done, but I had to ask somebody working at the polls how.

The voting machines used touch-screen technology. You touch a box graphic next to a candidate’s name on the monitor and an "X" appears there. Since all the things to vote on did not fit on one screen, I had to touch the next-page button on the screen to move on. There was also a previous screen option in case you needed to go back and make a change. Finally, after going through everything, I watched as a summary screen appeared displaying all my selections. Touching any of these would take me back to the page of selections for that candidate or issue, where I could change my vote if I wanted to. Once everything appeared in the summary like I wanted it, I only had to go to the next screen and touch the option to cast my vote.

Except for not knowing how to write in a candidate’s name, the experience was for me a fairly simple one. That wasn’t the case for others.

One of the brothers from the monastery went along with me to vote.

To put this in a politically correct way, I consider this brother "technologically challenged". After I finished voting, I gave him the sample ballot we had received in the mail with the choices we had agreed upon before going to vote. For some reason, his touch screen did not follow the order of the sample ballot as mine had: or did it list all the voting categories. He eventually called over one of the assistants working there and they managed to work it out.

Although there were some technological glitches, like our brother experienced, with the new touch-screen voting machines in Florida, it still was a far cry from the massive polling-place problems of the 2000 election.

European governments are taking voting machines a step further by experimenting with Internet elections. The European pilot programs are trying to solve the problems inherit in Internet voting things like voter privacy, voter identity checks and the risk of hackers affecting results. In Geneva, officials sent each voter a card with a 16-digit code and six alphanumeric characters under a scratch-off seal. To vote online, residents had to enter these codes along with their birth dates and voting municipality. This identified the voter so that he or she could not cast multiple votes, while at the same time protecting the voter’s anonymity. For each election, a new code would be mailed to voters.

Italy is planning on using "smart cards" to identify voters. Italian national identity cards will be replaced by cards with silicon chips storing personal-identification data. A Milan-based partnership is building an online voting system that will allow Italians to swipe their smart cards, enter their password and then vote.

Geneva and Italy’s system identifies the voter but what about protecting the votes in transit online from hackers? Both of these systems encrypt votes and voter identities as data travels over the Internet. The United Kingdom has a different approach. Each voter in a test district would receive a unique code for each candidate. Even if hackers intercepted voting data, they would not know how to interpret the codes or adjust them to alter election results.

Once the votes arrive and are finally recorded in a central data-base, protection is still required: Hackers might steal information on who voted for whom or tamper with the results. In Geneva, voters’ identities would be separated from their votes and scrambled, making it impossible to trace how people voted.

Of course, online voting has its detractors. For instance, the very techniques that safeguard privacy and anonymity can make it difficult to review election results in the case of irregularities. Unlike conventional voting, electronic votes can be altered without leaving any sign of tampering. Also, voters have no way to check whether their vote was recorded correctly.

In the United States, two startup companies, Vote Here in Bellevue, Wash., and Election.com in Garden City, N.Y. are offering to help U.S. state and county governments conduct elections online. The U.S. armed forces already have online voting service members stationed around the world were able to vote over the Internet in the 2000 presidential election. If the U.S. Congress approves a pending bill giving state and local election agencies billions of dollars for new voting technologies, the momentum for online voting for public elections could increase rapidly.

I don’t believe nationwide online voting is a question of "if" It’s a matter of "when"? Certainly the convenience alone would promote more robust participation among voters. Then again, there are still enough of those technologically challenged people out there to make mandatory online voting prohibitive. I’m sure it will be employed initially as some type of hybrid situation where people can do either vote online or vote using touch-screen systems set up at voting locations.

Here’s hoping that, once it gets here, widespread online voting will be easier then adjusting the clock on a 1995 Ford Escort!

Monthly Web Picks

For this month’s picks, because this is the Year of the Rosary, we will look at some rosary sites.

Since we are in the Year of the Rosary, it’s good to read what the Holy Father said to inaugurate it on Oct. 16 in his apostolic letter "Rosarium Virginis Mariae" (The Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary) at vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/index.htm.

Pope Leo XIII wrote 11 encyclicals on the rosary. They are available on the Vatican site, but the titles are in Latin. See the English titles at papalencyclicals.net/Leo13/index.htm.

Why not join the Rosary Confraternity? It is a worldwide movement of prayer entrusted to the Dominican Order by the Holy See more than 500 years ago. Find out more and consider joining at rosary-center.org.

Want to make rosaries to help spread the rosary devotion? See Our Lady’s Rosary Makers, who will send you the supplies you need and where to send finished rosaries. They’re at http://olrm.win.net

There are many more Web sites on the rosary-check them out in my online Catholic directory at monksofadoration.org/rosarytx.html.

Brother John Raymond welcomes
e-mail at john@aplusconsultingnow.com.

He is author of Catholics on the Internet: 2000-2001,
Webmaster of www.monkofadoration.org