The nation’s first-ever binding election that included online voting went so well in the Arizona Democratic primary in February that some school leaders now are talking about moving education elections to the internet.
In the Arizona primary, voter turnout was six times higher in this year’s Democratic contest than it was four years ago. In a primary election that allowed balloting over the internet, via the postal system, and at traditional polling stations, Arizona Democrats cast more than 76,000 votes this year. In 1996, the count was 12,800.
No one claims electronic access is the sole reason for the increase, but those close to the Arizona primary process say voting via the internet definitely was a factor.
“The remote voting alone tripled the voter turnout,” said Joe Mohen, chief executive officer of Election.com, the company that provided the internet voting service for the Arizona Democratic primary.
Brad Shields, school board president of the Eanes, Texas, Independent School District, already is talking with Election.com about holding online elections in the district’s highly wired community.
Online voting “might increase voter participation and make it easier for voters in our community,” Shields said. “It’s hard to motivate voters to leave their homes to go to a polling place.”
Internet voting increases voter turnout, because it provides an easy alternative for those who work long hours, have last-minute business trips, or are away from home, proponents say.
Having more choices means more parents will voteand that’s important for making decisions in education, Mohen said. “If you allow internet voting, more parents than retirees would be likely to vote and, therefore, more budget issues and bond issues will get passed,” he said.
Shields said his board might first hold a nonbinding election, such as a referendum, asking the community if they should build a new school. This vote would test the capabilities of online voting. After that, he said, the district would conduct a bond election over the internet.
“Sometime in the future, we might actually try elections of school board members by electronic voting,” he added.
Shields said the district would open the online polls for about a week. It also would ensure that people could cast only one vote and that everyone has ample access.
“We would still make voting available to those without computers,” he said, by setting up polling stations in libraries and schools.
Online voting doesn’t exclude people who have to work late or can’t get a baby-sitter, Mohen said. “There is a voting divide right now,” he said, and internet voting “improves the voting divide. We are trying to make democracy work by being all-inclusive.”
Because computers are so prevalent in society, even those who don’t own a computer can find a way to access the internet, Mohen saidwhether it’s through work, the library, a relative, or a copy center like Kinko’s.
Election.com has held more than 200 major online elections in the past 13 months for political organizations, labor unions, and school districts, Mohen said. Globally, the company has produced internet elections on every continent, he added.
Because of the time constraints involved in organizing Arizona’s online Democratic primary, organizers said, only previously registered Democrats could vote over the internet. The state’s counties supplied Election.com with a list of registered voters.
Election.com mailed a personal identification number (PIN) and instructions on how to vote online to the previously registered Democrats. Voters could log on at any time from any internet-connected machine and vote. Before voting, they had to type in their PIN and answer a series of authenticating questions.
Election.com collects existing voter registration lists and runs integrity checks on the data by checking death certificates and registrations from multiple addresses. The company also prepares a “challenge list” of voters whose registration must be verified before they can vote.
The Voting Integrity Project, a Virginia group that unsuccessfully sued to block the Arizona vote, fears internet voting won’t protect the privacy of each vote and the integrity of the count. The group also worries that with the advent of online voting, election officials across the country will not ensure that everyone has equal access to vote on election day.
During the Arizona vote, Election.com’s system stood up to tests by hackers and media scrutiny, the company reported.
“The security of voting over the internet during the election was as solid as a rock,” Mohen declared. “We actually go way beyond existing security systems.”
Arizona’s experience highlighted a number of areas that need fine-tuning before online voting could become widespread.
For example, the security technology used by Election.com actually created difficulties for some voters. Because the system’s advanced encryption mechanism is not compatible with older browsers, some voters couldn’t access the ballot without upgrading their browser first.
Then, some voters didn’t receive their PINs and had to call to get them. Others ran into “system busy” messages or blank screens when they tried to link to the voting web site, because there were so many users. In fact, so many people flooded telephone help lines in the early voting, that many got only busy signals.
Phil Noble, president of PoliticsOnline, a South Carolina-based company that provides internet tools for politics, said security and system-capacity issues won’t stand in the way for long.
And, he said, the push for internet voting is coming from the public.
“Arizona in many ways was an internet field of dreams,'” he said. “Build it and they will come. Well, they knocked down the gates to get to it.”
Eanes Independent School District
The Voting Integrity Project