Computerworld to your Town

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - "Internet voting will open up underrepresented minority active participation in the voting process."

Just knowing that you need something from a government agency--a renewed driver's license or a building permit, for example--is usually enough to wreck an otherwise lovely day. Some sort of hassle seems inevitable, whether it's an inconvenient location, limited hours, complex forms, or a wait that feels like eternity. You're dealing with the government, after all. But things may be changing. State, local, and even federal government agencies have finally heeded the cries of millions across the country and begun to move some of our more onerous tasks online.

Let's Get Digital

Arizona's Democratic Party made history in March when it held the first binding U.S. elections in which voters could cast their ballots online. But less publicized digital revolutions have been going on all over the country.

Residents in most parts of the country can download copies of government forms from state and county Web sites. And the federal government and most states allow online tax filing. Many states have gone far beyond that, offering electronic delivery of myriad services.

In Maryland, for example, residents can pay state taxes, register new businesses, verify the tax registration numbers of business partners, check property ownership, and renew vehicle registration over the Net. Indiana citizens can check for unclaimed property, register to vote, pay taxes, renew vehicle registration, and check medical and dental licenses online.

Folks in Alaska, Arkansas, California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin can register their cars on the Web. Virginia citizens can renew their driver's licenses over the Net, while residents of Pennsylvania can renew them at 30 touch-screen terminals around the state. Already, Nebraskans can go online to buy hunting and fishing licenses and order vital-statistics records, and Governor Mike Johanns says they will soon be able to do the same to renew driver's licenses and professional certificates.

Although most U.S. e-government activity has been happening at the state and local levels, the federal branch is pushing its own e-projects. Many departments and agencies have their own Web sites. Late last year, President Clinton made plans for the creation of a single Web site that would give citizens access to the most frequently requested federal forms and lots of other information about government services, including federal officials' e-mail addresses.


Clearly, online voting will be the next big step. Arizona was a strong start., which ran the Arizona primary, says that nearly half of the 85,970 ballots were cast online; government officials see those votes as a major step in bringing the Internet into the governmental process.

"The way we are doing business now, there are a number of obstacles to participation," said Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye, who cast his primary vote online. "The Internet eliminates those obstacles and makes participating much easier."

Begaye said that members of the Navajo Nation used to have to travel to the organization's geographically scattered polling sites in order to vote. He himself had to drive 4 hours to reach one. Typically only about 40 percent of the people in his Navajo chapter could make it to the polling places, and even fewer showed up if weather or other factors made travel difficult. Begaye expects all that to change: "Internet voting will open up underrepresented minority sectors of the population to active participation in the voting process."

He's not the only one excited by the possibilities. Earlier this year, a task force convened by California's Secretary of State Bill Jones released a 34-page report on the feasibility of conducting elections for state offices on the Net.

The report followed an earlier review that Jones commissioned to examine how tasks involving government services--including paying traffic tickets, enrolling children in public school, updating drivers' licenses, and applying for building permits--could be performed online.

Although Jones has expressed reservations about introducing Internet voting too quickly, California's Riverside and Monterey counties offered online voting in the state's March primary, using 100 state-controlled touch-screen terminals in shopping malls. Riverside officials have already announced their intention to completely replace the county's traditional punch-card voting booths with touch-screen terminals in time for use in next November's general election.

Indeed, petitions are being circulated for a California ballot initiative measure that would give voters the right to cast their votes online in federal, state, county, municipal, and district elections. If sponsors can collect 420,000 valid signatures, the measure will go before the voters this fall.

Serious obstacles block full implementation of e-voting, though. Alfie Charles, Jones's aide and a member of his electronic-voting task force, says that e-voting still has a number of security problems similar to those found in other types of e-commerce, including verifying the identity of voters, ensuring voter secrecy, and preventing hackers from attacking the system. Smart cards and other secure identification methods may play a role in the solution.

Charles says that after closely watching the Arizona primary, California officials still have reservations. "[Arizona officials] didn't have as many of the legal requirements as we do here,'' he notes. "There were no reports of hacking, but there is concern about that happening in a major election....

Although it was an interesting test, I think the jury is still out."

Future Vision

Though it's unlikely that your computer and modem will have replaced the familiar polling booths even by the time the 2004 elections roll around, expect more states to offer less-controversial services in the interim. Within the next four years, chances are good that you'll be enjoying the benefits already available to residents of Maryland and Indiana. And some time soon, we'll all be able to exchange many of our hours in line for minutes online.


Top 5 Chores You Want Moved Online

Over 1400 visitors to told us which of 15 bureaucratic chores they'd most like to do online.

1. Renewing a driver's license.

2. Registering a car.

3. Voting.

4. Registering to vote.

5. Ordering copies of vital records (such as birth certificates).