Research and Advances
Computing Applications

Internet Voting For Public Officials: Introduction

A way to ensure free and fair elections or an electronic invitation for ballot fraud and unequal representation?
  1. Introduction
  2. Promises and Pitfalls
  3. Political Issues
  4. Internet Voting Debate
  5. References
  6. Authors

People have voted by mail for years to elect officers of corporations and other organizations. More recently, they have begun casting these votes via the Internet. A logical next step, many say, is allowing ordinary citizens to vote for public officials via the Internet.

Internet voting has played a role in several recent U.S. presidential elections. The history-making 2000 elections included approximately 250 selected U.S. military personnel stationed overseas. Almost 50% of the votes in the Arizona Democratic Party’s March 2000 binding presidential primary were cast via the Internet. In the Alaska Republican Party’s January 2000 presidential straw poll, 35 people voted via the Internet. And in 1996, the Reform Party offered its members the option of voting for its presidential candidate by casting their ballots online, by mail, by phone, or in person.

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Promises and Pitfalls

Proponents of Internet voting in public elections point to convenience, long-term cost savings, 24-hour availability over several days, and the potential to free the voters from automobile traffic, weather, and postal service issues. They suggest, too, that Internet voting may allow many blind and disabled people to vote without assistance. They predict Internet voting will increase voter turnout and re-energize the electorate. Even opponents acknowledge many of these advantages. They also question whether Internet voting will boost or actually inhibit voter turnout and raise concerns about the security and privacy of online voting, as well as its potential to disadvantage those without computers at home.

Governments and election officials around the world are grappling with the question of whether to pursue Internet voting in their jurisdictions, and, if so, how to proceed. Some, like the Arizona Democratic Party in 2000, decided to jump in, allowing voters to vote from any Internet-connected computer. Others, like the California Internet Voting Task Force (under the auspices of the California Secretary of State), have argued that caution is warranted, suggesting that Internet voting be phased-in gradually to avoid problems already experienced with electronic (non-Internet-based) voting [1, 2].

As the technology has begun to prove itself, the Task Force has recommended the following phase-in process: that voters first be allowed to cast ballots on Internet-connected computers at their polling places, then at any polling place in their county, then from county-run computers or kiosks, and finally from any Internet connection.

The Task Force expressed concern that allowing Internet voting from computers not controlled by election officials posed special risks. David Jefferson, chair of the Task Force’s Technical Committee, is confident that Internet voting from polling-place computers is "technically manageable today" but also that systems allowing voting from any Internet-connected computer "are vulnerable to Trojan horse attacks for which there are today no good technical solutions that are both effective and convenient enough for voters."

Internet voting servers may be subject to denial-of-service attacks and other security threats. While many such threats are similar to the ones faced regularly by online financial services, Internet voting differs from financial applications in many important ways. For example, unlike financial applications, in which receipts are kept by all parties participating in each transaction and detailed audit trails are maintained, secret-ballot voting systems must be designed so no receipts are available, and ballot selections cannot be traced back to individual voters. Moreover, while financial mistakes can be corrected after being discovered, it is generally not feasible to remove fraudulent ballots from an election tally, because it is usually not possible to determine which ballots should not have been counted.

Remote Internet voting also carries risks similar to those associated with any remote voting system, including absentee ballots. Voters may be coerced by family members, employers, or others who may observe a ballot being cast or even "assist" the voter.

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Political Issues

Internet voting also raises a number of political and social issues. Does it unfairly disadvantage minority groups statistically less likely to have computers in their homes? Does it provide easier access to the polls for voters whose employment and child-care responsibilities make it difficult for them to vote when polling places are typically open? Does convenience outweigh the possible further erosion of the "civic ritual" of physically casting votes at the local polling place?

One dispute centers on whether online voting discriminates against minority voters or makes it easier for them to vote. In the 2000 Arizona primary, members of, an African-American group based in Phoenix, drove around town for days with laptops, dialing-in from churches, restaurants, supermarkets, and barber shops to enable people to vote (see At the same time, the Voting Integrity Project, a national nonpartisan voting-rights organization based in Arlington, VA, dedicated to "protecting free and fair elections in America," filed suit in federal court in Phoenix against the Arizona plan, saying it discriminated against minority voters (see Noting that only 50% of U.S. households have Internet access, the League of Women Voters also raised this issue (see

Internet voting can make it easier for voters to get information about candidates and ballot questions when they are deciding how to vote. On the other hand, the ability to review candidate information on the same computer screen on which a ballot appears raises questions about the feasibility of enforcing rules against electioneering in an online polling place., a for-profit bipartisan Web site, allows voters to fill out e-questionnaires in order to help identify the candidates they agree with. With Internet voting, they could then vote for them immediately, assuming they trust the information they’ve received from this or similar sites. James Madison, elected the fourth U.S. president in 1808 and reelected in 1812, commented on the potential perils of this "instant democracy" in Federalist Number 63 (see fed/fedindex.htm), pointing out there are times "when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion … may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn …" More than 200 years later, Jonah Goldberg asks us to imagine the incentives for activists and terrorists to stage disasters if instant democracy were in place ( goldberg122099.html).

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Internet Voting Debate

In order to sort out the contending arguments and likely outcomes concerning these issues, we present a detailed look at the Arizona Democratic primary from representatives of, the company hired by the Party to run the election. Joe Mohen and Julia Glidden describe its efforts to increase voter access and participation and address security issues. They also review lessons learned from this groundbreaking election. Coming down on the other side of this complex issue, Deborah M. Phillips of the Voting Integrity Project and Hans A. von Spakovsky, a former vice chairman of the Fulton County, GA, Election Board, analyze the risks of Internet voting, offering their own perspective on the Arizona Democratic primary. They also offer a framework for implementing Internet voting they contend is more likely to ensure free and fair elections characterized by security, privacy, and equity.

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    1. California Secretary of State. California Internet Voting Task Force Report; see (Jan. 2000).

    2. Larsen, K. Voting technology implementation. Commun. ACM 42, 12 (Dec. 1999), 55–57.

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