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Should voting be that easy?

You can buy a book, meet your mate, and file your taxes online, so should you be able to vote online? E-voting promises to make voting easier, potentially driving up participation rates, but critics argue that it is open to fraud and unfairly favors computer-owning voters. We asked two informed folks on opposite sides of the issue to chat face to face. Heather Gerken is a Harvard Law School assistant professor who teaches election law and worries about the problems with Internet voting; Jesse Gordon, a Web-savvy volunteer for Howard Dean's campaign and a senior analyst at Perot Systems Government Services in Scituate, supports the idea.

 

GORDON   People always wonder, why do so few people vote? Well, it's pretty obvious. Because it's hard. You have to have registered in advance. You have to have an ID with you if there's any sort of trouble. Those things sound like they're very simple one at a time, but when you add them all up, it makes it a real pain. Those things add up to make it so that students don't vote, and that's when habits get formed.

GERKEN   It may be even harder for the professional who's 50. They have less time. They have kids to take care of. And yet they vote at a higher rate than students, so it's not just how easy it is. There's two big problems with the Internet right now. One is security, and the second is the digital divide. People who are wealthier have better access to the Internet. The political system is fairly skewed already against lower socioeconomic groups, and I'm not sure if I want to put a thumb on the scale. We wouldn't, for example, have a bunch of limo drivers drive up to rich people's houses and bring them over to the voting booths just because it was going to raise their [participation] rates - and say that it wouldn't have any effect on other people.

GORDON   But there are other voting reforms [that would help other groups], in particular Saturday voting and same-day registration. Internet voting - yeah, it favors people on top of the digital divide, but you got to do something for them.

GERKEN   My guess is the young are the ones who will be most affected by [Internet voting]. But as long as the digital divide exists, it will also be the upper middle class who most benefit from this, because poor people just don't have that kind of access - unless you do something about putting Internet access someplace in neighborhoods.

GORDON   Every library now has several computers. And if you close the library computers to everything but voting on Election Day, that would solve it.

GERKEN   It's easier to vote in your home than it is to trudge out to the library. So it's not entirely clear that that is going to solve the problem. One idea would be to really swamp a neighborhood [with Internet voting kiosks] so that you could vote at the bus station, you could vote when you're picking up groceries on the way home.

GORDON   That would be a fairly reasonable way to solve the digital divide.

I think most worries about fraud on the Internet are true. But you got to compare what the security risk is with Internet voting compared to paper voting. As a [volunteer] poll worker, I can tell you that we don't check IDs. Anybody could walk in, guess a name that nobody recognizes, and vote. I think the real problem [with Internet voting] is systemic fraud - where the voting machine itself is set up fraudulently, or there is some sort of systemic problem and whole classes of people do not have their votes counted. You got to have a system in which the individual voter can verify their individual results. You have a receipt, with a coded number so it's anonymous, and then anyone who wants to can check that my number says my vote. And then you have programmers looking at the program code to see that indeed it's honest.

GERKEN   I think the fraud is a huge problem. One hates to have the idea that there may be fraudulent elections. And people have to believe in the system to want to take part in it. We need to solve the technology in an open, accessible way that everyone agrees on.

Once you overcome those problems, then it's really a more open question whether Internet voting increases or decreases the sense of isolation we have. There's something important about the ritual of getting out of your car, passing the people with the brownies, seeing the signs, and going in and talking to the little old lady from your neighborhood. There's some identification with community that takes place in that short walk, and I don't know if the Internet can re-create that sense of community.

This is an edited version of the transcript.


(Illustration / Ryan O'Rourke)
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