The following text is copyright 2000 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.


Next time via the Net?


By Scott Bradner

For some reason voting technologies have been on my mind of late.  The systems currently used in the U.S. clearly have some shortcomings.  Many of these can be overlooked when the voting population expresses a clear preference for a particular candidates but whose impact is magnified when an election is close.  Clearly there will be a lot of attention put to election processes and technologies in the next few years; how seriously should Internet-based voting be considered?


A few people did vote in the 2000 presidential election electronically over a network.  Having a few hundred military personnel vote over a closed network may have been an interesting experiment but there are more than a few problems with developing systems to permit even a small percent of the American electorate to indicate their preferences over the Internet. 


There are obvious issues of scale, reliability, and security.  Any Internet based voting system would have to be able to deal with millions of simultaneous users.  It would have to be designed to prevent Moscow teenagers from deciding the election.  And the infrastructure would have to be an order of magnitude more reliable than much of the Internet currently is.  In addition the system would have to ensure voter anonymity while at the same time guaranteeing that people could not vote more than once. 


These problems have direct analogues in the current voting system but there are some other issues which are exacerbated or created with a move to electronic voting.  Things as simple as voting hours and reporting schedule become major issues.  What should be considered "election day" on an Internet that spans 24 time zones? If it is to be one day (which could get rather hectic) is it 7am to 8pm in the timezone where the voter is registered or should it be some simultaneous window for the whole country (and for overseas voters)?  When should the public be able to find out how the voting is going? Should the current system of staggered reports continue or should be have a "big bang" of simultaniously announced results?


A major problem for some people would be the lack of exit polls - there would be no way to figure out what special interest to target next time - that would break my heart.  Equal access for people of all walks of life would be hard to guarantee and it is probably easier to design confusing electronic ballots as it is to design confusing paper ones, if looking at the web sites reporting election results is any indicator.


There are some initial attempts at electronic voting, the recent ICANN elections run by for example but these are halting first steps at best.  So there are no panaceas here - we can look forward to this kind of fun for years to come.


disclaimer: Since Harvard has a Law School it does not believe in panaceas, they reduce litigation, but the above observation is my own.