TCS Daily

The First Internet Election – a Snail’s Race?

By Duane D. Freese - November 13, 2000 12:00 AM

You can say one thing about last Tuesday's election - old technology took a licking and didn't come up ticking. Wherever you turned there were problems.

Take the Florida recount. Democrats quickly claimed the ballots in Palm Beach County were so unclear that people who supposedly wanted to vote for Vice President Al Gore punched up Pat Buchanan instead. Their complaints came a little late, considering they approved the ballot ahead of time, with Democrat Theresa LePore, the county supervisor of elections, also signing off on it.

But there's an even bigger problem with the ballot than the layout, one that shows up on recounts.

As Debbie Schlussel, a columnist for, notes, the real problem is that the ballots rely on people punching out perforated holes, called chads, when they vote. She recounts how the recount of her one vote loss for a Michigan House seat in 1990 took months as officials poured over ballots to determine if hanging chads really had been punched out. And every recount resulted in a change as some chads would fall out, making ballots invalid.

Tuesday, it would have been better to just have simple paper ballots where people could make their Xs to mark their choice. But better still, government needs to discard shoddy century-old technology for a modern Internet connection, both in polling places and for at home voting.

Critics of that technology say that Internet voting would create greater opportunities for fraud. And what, one might ask, would happen if the power went out? But as Joe Mohen of told host James Glassman in an interview for TechCentralStation before the election: "No election system is perfect. The quality of new election systems has to be judged relative to what exists already."

And what happened with election ballots in Florida last week suggests that not much could be worse than what happened there With pre-registration, pin numbers, personal identification and proper auditing, modern voting technology might have saved the nation a lot of money, time and, most of all, uncertainty.

Picking wrong winners, pecking at dot.coms

Nothing since the Chicago Tribune trumpeted "Dewey Beats Truman" in 1948 could have made the networks look more foolish than their election night prognostications of Gore takes Florida, Bush wins the Election, It's All Too Close to Call. Nothing, that is, except the major media's carping about several dot.coms releasing the results of the established press' combined exit polling in mid afternoon, instead of after the election polls closed.

Courts can deal with the legitimate issue of whether the dot.coms use of the information violated some copyright law. What is strange is to hear the establishment press claim that keeping information away from people is a good thing. Dot.coms, such as and the Drudge Report, by publishing raw results when the get them, or at least try to, are merely passing on information - which is what an independent press does.

The regular press did much the same until Democrats complained in 1980 that the release of poll results showing Ronald Reagan the winner before California's polls closed discouraged their voters in the West from voting in other important elections. Subsequent studies showed that wasn't the case. But the press bowed anyway.

If networks and the rest of the media really want to help voters, though, they should emphasize that every poll has a margin of error, rather than trumpet results as if they came from on high. As Tuesday's election coverage showed, even small error margins can make fools of us all.

Traffic Jam on the Internet

The election also clearly demonstrated that people when they want to get news fast are turning to the Internet. reported 100 million hits last Tuesday, 60 million more than its previous high on Oct. 12. Other websites also reported record traffic.

Unfortunately, too often, political surfers didn't get quick results. There were long delays in Web pages downloading, with average times quadrupling from their normal four seconds. Some sites, such as the Drudge Report, which had promised exit poll results, were so overwhelmed they just went down, while MSNBC's site greeted visitors with the message: "You're seeing this page because MSNBC is experiencing high site traffic."

The Web pages and portals themselves caused much of the delay by not having adequate capacity. But another reason for the slowdown was that the Internet continues to ride along clunky, horse and buggy-era twisted copper wire at 28.8 to 56 kilobytes a second.

Broadband technology, with speeds four to 400 times faster reaches only about 5 million homes and small businesses now. But it is expected to reach 50 million homes and businesses by 2005, and might get there a lot faster if government can stay out of the way.

Court battles over local attempts to foist access provisions on cable companies on behalf of Internet service providers put a crimp into deployment efforts for a time, threatening to undercut financing just as cable rate controls throttled development in the early 1990s. The local governments have lost. But now the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission appear to want to step in.

That could slow things down all around, as local phone companies began really to deploy their own high speed lines - DSL service - only when cable broadband began to become a real threat to them. Saddling the cable companies with new rules is one way for the locals to gain a competitive advantage.

If the government wants the Internet to really hum, it better not hobble the horses that can get it moving quickly.

Last Tuesday's election showed off the Internet's shortcomings, but more its tremendous potential.

But to achieve it requires smart thinking, by voters before casting ballots, by pundits before speaking, and by bureaucrats before making up new rules to run it.

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