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News > Technology
Eliminating retro-voting
December 12, 2000: 12:29 p.m. ET

Election fiasco may spur adoption of more secure, more accurate technology
By David Lipschultz
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SAN FRANCISCO (www.redherring.com) - The presidential election was frustrating for everyone, but for tech heads it was downright distressful. Watching people thrust paper ballots in front of partisan counters as they evaluated "pregnant chads" caused about as much teeth grinding as watching someone draft a lawsuit against you.

So, while the world anxiously awaited the identity of the 43rd U.S. president, the big question in the technology community was: in the digital age, how the hell could this fiasco have happened?

Why couldn't voters have been greeted with paperless computer touch screens at polling places -- you know, like the ones on a zillion ATMs throughout the country? Why can't the machines that collect votes do it with laser-precision accuracy? If we can pay bills and buy almost anything from home, why can't we vote from home?

There are various explanations for the fact that amid one of history's greatest technological transformations, municipal and state governments still use paper ballots and antiquated machines from the '60s to collect and count citizens' votes. "Election authorities just don't get the money to upgrade," says David Jefferson, a researcher at Compaq (CPQ: Research, Estimates) and a leading Internet voting adviser to the California secretary of state.

Plus, since each state has different election requirements, there's a strain on companies that want to offer technological solutions. "In New York, for example, all the candidates have to be on one screen, so we can't give them a general-purpose machine," says Joe Mohen, the CEO of Election.com.

A glimpse of what's available

The technology is there. Direct-recording electronic machines are already in use in a few places like Riverside County, Calif.; the devices shun paper, storing and recording votes on a stand-alone system. But that's only a glimpse of what's available.

Some companies like VoteHere and Election.com have produced Internet-based technologies that enable voters to cast ballots on a computer and send the information to a central data center. Counting and recounting are then instantaneous, with little room for error.

"There certainly wouldn't be any votes cast accidentally for Pat Buchanan on our system," says Jim Adler, the president and CEO of VoteHere.

So one wonders why these technologies haven't gained more acceptance. "Before this election, the margin of victory was almost always higher than the margin of error," says Adler, who pegs the latter at 3 to 5 percent in most elections.

One positive thing may come out of the 2000 election debacle: Authorities now feel pressure to find an alternative to the glitch-ridden paper ballot system. And that means both Election.com and VoteHere will get kick starts. VoteHere, for one, just raised a big round of financing to start implementing its system nationally.

Now that the closest presidential election on record has managed to boost the fortunes of these two companies, how do they plan to change the voting dynamic? VoteHere is concentrating more on getting the Internet into the polling place. "I think it's the first necessary step," Adler says. He believes home voting is not yet secure enough for mainstream voting. The company already has done dozens of pilot tests in hopes of getting its platform certified.

Vote where you want to

Election.com, however, is focusing on home voting. "People want to vote where they want, when they want," says Mr. Mohen.

With this idea in mind, the company has created a new I-voting platform that allows users to cast ballots from home PCs. In fact, the company tested the platform in the Arizona Democratic Primary last year. It sent personal identification numbers to voters, and roughly 36,000 people voted online.

In the meantime, legacy companies like Global Election Systems and Election Systems & Software still dominate the space for election equipment, though many say the 2000 election could shrink their markets.

Some security experts say that home-computer voting still leaves too much room for foul play and that Election.com may be jumping the gun. Worst case (though it would be tough to pull off): "A good hacker could send in a virus to every computer and make sure everyone votes for Bush, for example, even if they think they are voting for Gore," says Dan Boneh, a prominent cryptologist at Stanford University. "Home voting will be insecure until a user votes from a separate, tamper-resistant machine."

Others doubt if fraud will really be much of a threat. Mohen says Election.com has never had a security glitch. "Don't you think a hacker would go after the billions of dollars moving through brokerage houses rather than trying to steal votes?" he asks.

It looks as if Election.com and VoteHere will enter center stage for the 2002 elections, and this should mean a further boon for public-key infrastructure vendors like Baltimore (BALT: Research, Estimates), Entrust (ENTU: Research, Estimates) and Verisign (VRSN: Research, Estimates) (an investor in Election.com).

Digital certificate producers and integrators also will be in high demand. And that's not to mention all the routers, firewalls, storage facilities, and other IP infrastructure that will be needed to upgrade an entire voting system. Says Adler: "Like e-commerce, it will drive another evolutionary shift." graphic

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