TCS Daily


Will Technology Change the Way We Vote?

By James K. Glassman - November 6, 2000 12:00 AM

As Americans physically head to the polls this week, TCS takes a look at how technology is changing the way we elect our public officials. election.com bills itself as the preeminent Global Election Company for any private or political entity by empowering voters with an easier, more secure electoral process thus enabling its clients around the world to be more inclusive, trusted and productive at less cost. TCS host Jim Glassman spoke with election.com CEO Joe Mohen.

James K. Glassman: This week, Arizona is conducting a test of onsite Internet polling in public voting places. These are only sample ballots. How does this differ from the first binding online vote that your company ran for the Arizona Democratic Party in their Presidential Preference Primary in March?

Joe Mohen: You know, election.com is comprehensive election services company, and we conduct weekly elections all over the world in both the private and public sector. And election.com also offers not only single model elections but also what we call multi-model elections, meaning you can have voting at the polling place, at the Internet by traditional means, you can have remote voting by mail, by the Internet. You can integrate really any one of many voting modes that your particular election requires.
Now in the Arizona Democratic Primary in March, we offered four different voting modes. We offered the ability to vote by mail, we offered the ability to vote remotely over the Internet, we offered the ability to go into a polling place and vote over the Internet, and we also offered the ability to vote by traditional paper ballot in the polling place. And so we offered all four modes in Arizona.

And actually, there were some very interesting things that came out of that. Over 80 percent of the voters elected to vote remotely. And we think that the number even would have been higher but if people knew that if they registered to vote and then, going forward, would get to vote in the web. Another interesting thing we learned even if people didn`t have to go to polling places nearest to their home, for example at their office, which was allowed for the first time in March, we found it had no impact whatsoever on voter turnout

Another thing that we found is, of the people that came to the polling places, 75 percent voted by paper anyway, which was something that we didn`t anticipate as when came to vote they were encouraged to vote on the Internet as opposed to cast a paper ballot. We also learned that over 80 percent of the cost in doing the primary was involved in putting the Internet at the polling places. The remote Internet polling was the least expensive push of the whole process.

Glassman: So, remote Internet voting saves money?

Mohen: What we learned from that election is that if you provide Internet voting remotely, it adds a lot of value - voter turnout goes up tremendously, went up by a factor of six in the Arizona Democratic Primary, but if you put it at the polling place, that`s very expensive and nobody cares. So, going forward, we`re going to be doing a number of public sector elections in Europe in 2001 offering remote Internet voting so people can vote from home or work or school, but there is not going to be anything put it in the polling places because that would cost the taxpayers billions and adds no value. Why would the taxpayers spend billions of dollars on something that they don`t really need anyway?

Glassman: Now, you said that voting went up by a factor of six in the Arizona primary. What were the votes before?

Mohen: In the previous primary in 1996, there were approximately 12,000 votes cast. And in the Arizona primary in March there were over 80,000 votes cast.

Glassman: Oh, really?

Mohen: Yes.

Glassman: 40,000 of those were by Internet?

Mohen: Yes. 36,000 and change were remote Internet votes. A little under 4,000 were Internet votes at the polling place. About 32,000 and change were votes by mail and about 12,000 or so were paper votes at the polling places.

Glassman: Did the people who voted by Internet have to register before?

Mohen: Yes. If you weren`t registered in advance of the announcement of the primary, you could not vote remotely. Now, this is important because what I think would have happened is if people knew that if they registered to vote as a Democrat, for example, they could then vote over the Internet, we think that the number of Internet votes would have been even higher.

Glassman: When I was at the Pan American Conference in Colorado in August, your partner was there and made a presentation. But Bill Bennett, among others, complained that the number of people who vote is not really what we should be aiming for, but rather responsible voting. And he worried that, in a way, you are making things too easy.

Mohen: Well, let me say first of all, the concern is valid. But let me turn it around. Let me advocate for the opposite position for a second. We, right now, live in a country that is highly fragmented in terms of our political jurisdictions. In the village I live in, Garden City, New York, there were seven political elections this past year. Seven. Okay? There was a village mayoral election in early March. There were presidential primaries for both the Democrats and Republicans in later March. There was a county legislature election in May, which is arguably a most important election because Nassau County is nearly bankrupt. There was a school board election for trustees and a school board budget in May. There were the Third Party primaries in the summer. There was the down ballot primary, in which our candidates for the United States Senate were selected in September, and then there is the main presidential election on Nov. 7.

Now, for the village mayoral election, with the village having 23,000 people, not even a hundred people showed up. You know why? Because most people were unaware that the election was going on. Now, there are people from my hometown serving in the military. Do you know how many of them even were aware or noticed the school board election? Do you know that most people in the military were not notified and had no opportunity to vote in the village mayoral election? Is that fair?

Glassman: I think the problem is that you have a lot of elections.

Mohen: We have lots of elections in this country because our government is highly decentralized and most people are unaware that most of these elections are going on and voter turnout is typically single-digit percentage. We`ve looked at voter turnout in the United States and we say, well, more than half of the people vote in the presidential elections, so that`s voter turnout. But I say, the more important thing we have to look at is what is the voter turnout in all the elections that determine how we are governed.

Let me put it in another perspective. There`s a primary in September in many states that determines who is on your congressional ballot, who is running for Congress. Now, arguably, that`s more important than the November election because Republicans tend to win the Republican districts, Democrats tend to win in the Democratic districts. The real race is in September. And that`s the election that nobody knows about.

Glassman: Right. But I don`t think you really addressed the question of making it easy for people to vote. What you were saying about Garden City was that a lot of people didn`t even know there was an election.

Mohen: But that`s part of the problem.

Glassman: You can certainly get that idea to the people through the Internet or through lots of other means, but that isn`t actually voting.

Mohen: But let me say, let me come across. I`m challenging you because I think I am being responsive to your question. What I am saying to you is that five out of six or six out of seven elections that are important in our democracy, people serving in the military, serving overseas, students away in the universities don`t even know that is going on. Many women living in the towns in the counties where these elections are don`t even know they`re happening. As a result, a party boss handpicks who your congressman is. And I submit to you that that`s not because most people are apathetic and don`t care. I submit to you it`s because the system could be improved. And if we make it easier, not only to vote, but also for the people to know that these elections are going on, that governance will improve. I think voter turnout going up is a good thing. But let me take it a step further. Voter turnout among our young people is abysmal. We talk about it being in the vicinity of a quarter to a third during the presidential election. However, in local elections it goes down to a dismal 1 to 2 percent in many cases. Voter turnout is particularly poor among many of our minority youth, the 18-to-25-year-olds. Many don`t even believe in the system. You tell me whether it is better for those people to live outside the system or believe that, to effectuate change, they have to take part and live within it.

Glassman: That actually brings up another criticism, which is that some critics of online voting have said that you will only deepen the digital divide between technological haves and haves-not.

Mohen: Well, let me look at what statistics are showing so far. If you implement Internet voting successfully, you can actually ameliorate the digital divide as opposed to aggravate it. For example, in the Arizona Democratic primary, it endured a legal challenge for an injunction to stop election on the basis that it would be unfair to dilute the minority vote, that blacks, Latinos and American Indians would have their votes diluted as a percentage of the overall vote.

Take a look at the statistics and see what actually happened. Latino turnout and African American turnout went up nearly 900 percent as opposed to the overall voter turnout, which went up about 600 percent. Native American turnout was up 575 percent and that`s phenomenal when you consider that many Native Americans don`t vote as a form of protest.

So my point is this: You can do a good job when you implement something and you can address the concerns or you can choose not to do a good job. Now, let`s not discount that we do a very professional and competent job, but what we did when we implemented Internet voting on a statewide basis in Arizona is that we approached all the minority leaderships and civil rights leaderships around the state and around the country for that matter, and said, what are your concerns, what problems might come up, and how could we address them collectively? And there were ways to do it.

Let me take a look at the national level in the United States. I had a very simple opinion on how to close the digital divide. The best way to close the digital divide is to close it. We as a country can say, just like we did with rural electrification in the 30s, look; it is in the best interest of the United States that all our citizens who want can get access to the Internet. Highly doable. With 89 percent of our schools on the Internet, why is it not a 100 percent? We have the money to do it. The industry will do it. What is needed is the leadership in addressing that requirement. It is no question to me that as a country, the solution to the issue you raised is not to say, well, let`s decide as a country, are we going to let our minority youth, our children living in poverty continue indefinitely not to have Internet access and be left out of the benefits of the new economy?

I think it`s much more forward thinking to say, look, over the five years, we as a country are going to spend the money on our infrastructure, we`ll create the environment, which would be through tax incentives and other means to make Internet access ubiquitous for Native American, of whom, you know, 40 to 45 percent don`t even have telephone service; for our poor children; for inner-city schools; for rural schools. Because if we do that, then we`re going to bring the whole generation of people into the New Economy. We need that for our success as a country. If we do that, then the digital divide would be closed. That`s what we need to do.

Now, it does beg the question that I think that studies show 16 percent of Americans, even if you give them the best computers for free, are not going to use them. That 16 percent is never going to use computers. But that percentage is going to go down as the population continues to age, because young people are more likely to like computers than older people. You know, it`s just a demographic shift that will take it under 10 percent. But there`s a component of population that no matter what you do is never going to use computers.

Glassman: Let me just go back so that everyone can know exactly what you`re doing now. You mentioned you`re doing something again in Arizona and have some other projects. What are they?

Mohen: Well, one thing we have provided in this past election was for Americans living in 46 of the 50 states and all expatriates, including military and dependents overseas, to get their voter registration materials through the website. In addition to that, for 100 percent of the Americans in this presidential election, we provided the ability to get your absentee ballot application through the Internet. As a result, over 700,000 Americans registered to vote using the website over the past year.

Glassman: I didn`t know that. I was actually looking for an absentee ballot myself.

Mohen: Well, all you have to do is go to election.com. Glassman: And what are you doing in Europe?

Mohen: Well, we now have just been in the UK and France for the better part of this year, and we just recently opened up in Switzerland and Ireland. And most of our business in the United Kingdom is labor unions because you know it`s a heavy unionized workforce over there. In the rest of Europe, the public sector means governmental election. Internet voting is already legal for our friends in France. Internet voting is already determined to be legal in many other jurisdictions around Europe. And I think there are a number of progressive countries that are moving ahead, I expect we`ll be doing probably at least seven or eight major public-sector elections in Europe during 2001.

Glassman: So, have you done any public-sector election other than Arizona at this point?

Mohen: As far as binding votes, Arizona was the only one thus far. However, we have bids in on a number more in both the United States and abroad in 2001.

Glassman: What about the question of fraud? Tell us basically how you protect against it and whether those protections foolproof?

Mohen: Well, I would say, first of all that no election system is perfect. The quality of new election systems has to be judged relative to what exists already. That`s the first thing I have to say. The next thing I`ll say is, we deploy numerous protections against fraud. And let me talk about that for a second because a lot of people say, well, you know the system is going to lead to fraud, blah blah.

Now, during the Arizona Democratic primary, what we did is, we provided a pin number for each registered Democrat for whom the government had an address, and we also then we challenged them to supply other information about themselves, where they were born, their mother`s maiden name, last four digits of their SSN, whatever the government happened to have on file. Now, of the approximately 80,000 votes cast, there was not one, in spite of vociferous attempts to undermine the election, including a magazine in Washington that hired a consulting firm to break into our website. ...

Glassman: Really, what was that?

Mohen: The National Geographic. And in addition to that, there were numerous other attempts to hack and break in the election. In spite of that, the number of successful attempts to defraud the election was zero. Now, let me put that in contrast, because you have to judge the system relative to what they displaced. In the election on November 7 in Arizona, there was no ID check; you don`t have to know anything about yourself.

Glassman: Yeah, I just show up and then signed, and that`s all.

Mohen: In many states, there`s no signature. So, my point is this. What we did is we augmented the system; we made it much tighter than existing systems provided for. We picked a lot of things up, in terms of interest in the county rolls and stuff like that, that wasn`t on there before. So again when you take a look at things, what you`re going to say is we can take the existing system and make it better.

Now, there are many people no matter what we do, that are going to cry foul, you`re vulnerable to hack. Well, the reality is today we are conducting 12 elections in the United States alone. And you know what, we`ve been conducting elections in New Zealand, UK, all over the place. And we never have had an election overturned. We will do several elections in the United States this year probably; in the next 12 months we`re expecting to do 600 outside the United States, in both public and private sector. And what is going to happen is, public confidence will emerge and increase as we continue to get traction. The more elections we do without hiccups, and the more people understand about the existing system, the more they are going to realize that we`ve got a very powerful offering and for those jurisdictions that want it, you know, Internet voting is highly developed.

Glassman: Is election.com a public company?

Mohen: Election.com is privately held; we are not currently a public company.
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