Allowing people to vote over the internet could draw millions more Americans to the polls, according to a University of Arizona study. The lead researcher recommends that states begin testing this theory by allowing online elections for local school board positions.

In the study, Robert Done, an assistant research professor of management and policy at the Eller College of Business and Public Administration, highlights the results of the Arizona Democratic Party’s 2000 presidential primary, which used internet voting in a binding election for public office for the first time.

Voter turnout in the primary was more than double the previous record, and about 40 percent of the 86,000 ballots were cast online.

“It worked out pretty well,” Done said. “If those results can be generalized to the rest of the country, there would be a dramatic increase in voter participation.”

“Convenience probably was the biggest factor in this,” he said. “It can be done from home or anywhere, really, where there’s internet access.”

The primary election survived a legal challenge by a Virginia-based group called the Voting Integrity Project, which claimed low-income minority members would be harmed by internet voting because they have less access to computers.

The Voting Integrity Project also questioned system security and how a person voting online could prove his or her identity.

Officials with the Voting Integrity Project could not be reached for comment. The group’s telephone number was disconnected and its internet address now hosts a web browser.

Done said the group raised crucial issues that must be addressed if internet voting is to succeed on a larger scale.

“I agree with the significance of all those issues,” he said. “This is a change in our process that is going to need a lot of perfecting.”

But Done said Arizona’s results from internet voting were much better than Florida’s experience with punch card ballots, which held up the 2000 presidential election amid claims of mistaken votes, hanging chads, and other problems.

“If done properly, voters can have every confidence in it that their votes count, compared to a punch card, where a chad might fall out, invalidating their vote,” Done said.

Former Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Mark Fleisher, who launched the internet primary, said that election showed what is possible.

“What I see as the shining star in this was it engages and excites young people,” Fleisher said. “There’s no doubt internet voting is coming. The door has been opened.”

As part of his study, “Internet Voting: Bringing Elections to the Desktop,” Done also surveyed 495 voting age Arizonans in spring 2001.

The survey found that 62 percent of the unregistered respondents would register to vote if they could use the internet, and 42 percent said they would vote online, mirroring the results of the Arizona Democratic primary.

The survey had a margin for error of 2 percentage points.

If those responses became reality, 90 percent of eligible Americans would be registered to vote and 71 percent would cast ballots, according to the report. If just half of the country’s unregistered voters signed up, it would create 25 million potential new voters, the report said.

Done recommends that states experiment with internet voting in city council and school board elections, promote research on internet transaction security, and encourage social scientists to study the effects of internet voting on participation and the democratic process.

“The report comes at a time when recommendations for improving the voting process are being examined, and eGovernment is transforming citizen interaction with government,” said Grady Means, managing partner for PricewaterhouseCoopers, which provided a $15,000 grant for the study. “We believe this research will contribute to the debate and help improve the processes of democracy.”

Educators who spoke with eSchool News agreed that holding school board elections online would increase voter participation. But they cited the same concerns—access, security, and validity—expressed by the Voting Integrity Project.

“I think online voting is a great idea,” said John D. Roman, director of technology at Indian Oasis Baboquivari School District in Sells, Ariz. “For our school district, the biggest problem would be that we are very rural, and most of the voters do not have access to a computer.”

“It’s a great idea, and one that may get more people involved in the voting process,” agreed Charlie Reisinger, director of technology for Pennsylvania’s Penn Manor School District. “But the old phrase ‘nobody on the internet knows you are a dog’ really makes sense for online voting. It’s very hard to verify absolutely that the voter is, indeed, who she says she is.”

Cost also is an issue, said Dennis Dempsey, superintendent of Crook Deschutes Education Service District in Redmond, Ore.

“I would love to test this concept in my own district,” Dempsey said, “if I did not have to also pay for the cost of a ballot election at the same time.”

Links:

University of Arizona
http://www.arizona.edu

PricewaterhouseCoopers
http://www.pwcglobal.com

“Internet Voting: Bringing Elections to the Desktop” (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)
http://endowment.pwcglobal.com/pdfs/Done_Report.pdf