SAN FRANCISCO (01/27/2000) - It was billed as the first great experiment of Internet voting: Several thousand Alaskans living in remote areas would be given the chance to vote in the state's Republican Party straw poll on January 24.
The results are in, and while Texas Governor George W. Bush can claim a narrow, five-vote victory, it looks like the Net came in dead last. Of over 4000 votes cast on Monday, just 35 came via the Internet. Not all of the 35 came from within the state of Alaska - some were cast from Washington by members of Alaska's congressional delegation.
That depends on whom you ask. The technology for Alaska's Net voting was provided by Votehere.net, a Washington-based data security firm. Jim Adler, the company's president and CEO, acknowledged in an interview that the Net turnout was "small." But Adler defended his company's product, calling the Alaskan GOP straw poll "a great success," because it helped the state party "reach out to people who were traditionally disenfranchised."
According to Adler, the Alaskan Republican Party mailed out more than 3,000 Internet voting registration forms to registered voters in Alaska's 36th, 37th and 38th Congressional Districts. Those forms included a digital ID and a form that had to be signed by voters. Adler indicated it was possible that not all voters received their packets. "It's unclear how many got into the hands of voters, because of the mail," Adler said.
There is, however, a more sinister interpretation of events. The overall turnout for the straw poll was only about half the size of 1996. Several political commentators have said that the state party deliberately kept turnout low so as not to embarrass GOP front-runner Bush. One rival, Steve Forbes, put substantial resources into the Alaskan straw poll, even though its results are not binding. Forbes ended up losing to Bush by just five votes; the magazine publisher's campaign has dubbed the result a "dead heat."
Curiously, Bush took a disproportionate number of Internet votes, tallying 23 out of the 35 cast. That result has caused Steve Forbes to cast doubt on the caucus' validity. In comments captured Tuesday night on C-SPAN, Forbes said:
"We actually won that caucus. And so the establishment had to scramble and do sort of the electronic equivalent of bringing in late precincts to win the thing. And what they did was count e-commerce, electronic voting from apparently congressional staffers outside of the state to try to tie the thing up, so we had a dead heat."
A Forbes representative said, however, that the campaign was not contesting the straw poll's outcome.