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Arizona To Try Internet Voting

Hoping to appeal to young computer-savvy voters and raise interest in their party's presidential primary, Arizona Democrats plan to hold what elections experts say will be the first binding Internet balloting for public office.

Choosing candidates from home with a simple click of a computer mouse could boost turnout for the March 11 primary, though some worry about the potential for fraud.

"This will be the first thing to come along to motivate people to vote since the repeal of the poll tax," said state Democratic Chairman Mark Fleisher.

But Deborah Phillips, president of the Voting Integrity Project in Arlington, Va., has concerns.

"Anyone who's spent an hour on the Internet knows the potential for things to go wrong," said Phillips, a frequent Internet user. She cited potential problems as:

  • hackers
  • people trying to cast someone else's ballot
  • loss of voting privacy
  • lack of access to computers in some communities that might skew results.
Party officials in Arizona are still completing details of how the election will be run. But to vote online from home, voters would complete a form printed from the party's Web site, choose a personal identification code, sign it and mail it to the party. Once the signature is verified, confirmation would be sent to the voter by e-mail.

To vote, the individual would go to the Web site and enter the identification code.

Democratic officials also plan to have several dozen voting locations with a computer at each site for individuals who don't have one at home. Paper ballots also would be available for those who prefer the traditional method of voting.

Arizona's Democratic primary would be the first election for public office to use the Internet, said Doug Lewis, executive director of The Election Center in Houston.

Fleisher said he expects 25,000 to 40,000 people to vote in the party-run primary.

Arizona will hold a state-run presidential primary Feb. 22, in which Republicans will vote using paper ballots at hundreds of traditional polling places.

The Internet previously has been used in test election runs in five Washington state counties and a mock statewide election in Iowa.

Vote Here Inc. of Kirkland, Wash., is one of several companies Arizona Democrats have talked with about running the computer side of their election.

Jim Adler, the company's chief executive officer, said the key to successful Internet voting is to give it as many anti-fraud protections as with the popular absentee ballot.

His company requires a written signature before allowing someone to vote online, encrypts all transmissions to prevent them from being intercepted, operates backup network servers to avoid system crashes, stores all votes on CD-ROM and sends a confirmation message once a vote has been recorded.

Among its advantages, Adler said, the Internet allows voters to obtain information about candidates at the same place they vote, creates the covenience of a limitless number of polling places and may connect better with 18- to 24-year-olds, who are some of the most disenfranchised voters. All of those factors could mean increased participation, he said.

Young adults' participation in elections has been declining at a greater rate than participation by the rest of the population, said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. Voters aged 18 to 24 were more of a force in 1992 than in any year since 18-year-olds got the right to vote in 1971, Gans said.

In 1992, young adults voted at a 38 percent rate, compared with 55 percent for the overall population. But by 1996, voter turnout for that age group had dropped by 10 percentage points and remained significantly below turnout for the overall population.

Polls have suggested that voters, especially younger ones, overwhelmingly like computers and technology, and support the idea of Internet voting.

"It's easy and it takes less time," said Cesar Marin, a 22-year-old Democrat who spends about two hours a day online. "I would say 80 percent of the people my age are on the Internet."

A lot could be riding on Arizona's experiment.

California and Washington are considering similar Internet voting programs, and other states are watching.