But, before it can do any of these, Internet voting must overcome both the technical issues already in its path and the roadblocks that some politicians will undoubtedly erect.
Perhaps the greatest advantage to Internet voting is that it could attract voters who've become disenchanted with the political process, voters who yearn for change but feel the our governmental and electoral systems preclude significant innovations or improvements. The Internet could make voting so convenient that these individuals might participate. Even if their idealistic candidates are a long shot, it might be worth a mouse-click just to register discontent with the shoe-ins.
Plus, the plentiful chat room discussions and e-mails ranting about the inadequacies, ineptitude and injustices in this country might not inspire people to drive to a polling place but could nudge them to click their way into the virtual voting booth. If these disillusioned Americans have underestimated their collective power, the results could be as surprising as Jesse Ventura's victory in Minnesota's gubernatorial election.
Internet voting -- both because it's hassle-free and because it utilizes a medium with which they're familiar -- could also involve more young people in the electoral process. The current voting setup requires young citizens to enter a world dominated by older adults, a world in which they might not feel comfortable or welcome.
According to the Federal Election Commission, less than 32 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in the 1996 presidential election, while 57 percent of people above the age of 24 voted. If Internet voting encourages the young to vote, their youthful idealism, untainted by cynicism, might bring refreshing changes to the political scene.
In addition to attracting new voices to the electoral process, Internet voting could encourage all voters to make decisions based not on sound bites or commercials but on objective information. The Internet has the ability to store an incredible amount of information and to present it at the click of a mouse. On the virtual ballot, voters could view candidates' voting records, contributors, ethical violations and criminal infractions while in office, records of attendance at governmental sessions and other pertinent, objective information. Voters could also access additional information by surfing to advocacy group, media and other politically oriented Web sites as they vote.
As equally important as this information is the time to digest and use it. Some people do very little research before voting, especially with regard to less publicized offices such as judgeships, school boards and commissions.
The Internet would allow everyone to sit, relax and absorb the information on the ballot as they vote.
For those who own computers, there would be no one waiting in line behind them; for those who vote at a library or polling place, enough computers could be set up to ensure that no one is rushed. Voting could even be extended from one day to several days, allowing citizens to complete their voting in stages, saving their selections after each session.
But many, even if they've researched the candidates, cast a vote for a favored candidate in lieu of their favorite candidate. This fear of wasting a vote effectively limits the field of candidates in most state and national elections to those selected by Republicans and Democrats.
In 1996, Lorrie Cranor, then a graduate student at Washington University, developed an Internet voting system that allows for this pragmatic voting while simultaneously accounting for voters' true preferences. Her system asks voters not only to cast a vote but also to rate candidates on a scale from 1 to 10.
By voting for George W. Bush but giving him a ranking of only 4 while giving Pat Buchanan a ranking of 10, the voter tells the system that, if Buchanan has a chance of winning, the vote should be cast for Buchanan; if not, it should be cast for Bush. After the polls are closed, the system mathematically determines how these conditional votes should be counted.
Although such a system is logical, objective and more effectively arrives at voters' desires, it won't be adopted in the near future. When the scientifically and mathematically sound practice of statistical sampling threatened to alter the boundaries of U.S. House districts in a way that would jeopardize the Republican Party majority, Republican leaders shouted it down as being numerical hocus pocus. The maintenance of the current power structure, it seems, was more important than accuracy.
Even Internet voting itself, aside from the major changes contained in Cranor's system, poses a threat to those in power. Web-based elections could eventually transform our government from a representational democracy to a true democracy. Depending on the level of involvement desired, citizens could vote directly on all bills or only on major issues.
Unlike the votes we now cast, ballots of the future could directly determine the country's laws. Without the potentially corruptive influence of lobbyists and special interest groups, who'd no longer be able to control the national agenda through a few politicians, voting would be pure. For good or bad, the result of elections would reflect the preferences of the American electorate.
But we've not yet reached the point where those who benefit most from our current government have begun to argue against Internet voting. There exist several technical concerns that must be resolved before Internet voting will be a viable alternative to traditional voting.
Perhaps the most significant of these is the security of voting data. The major developers of Internet voting systems tout the impregnable technology that guards their networks and servers -- eballot.net (www.eballot.net) offers "cutting edge firewall technology and encryption methods to ensure end-to-end integrity," while election.com (www.election.com) uses "state-of-the-art cascading encryption" to enhance security. VoteHere.net (www.votehere.net) bills itself as "the secure Internet voting company."
But, as the recent Melissa and ILOVEYOU! Viruses and other forays into fortressed systems have shown, few, if any, corporate or government systems are completely secure. Until security is improved, we must assume that any Web-connected computer is accessible by unauthorized users. Voting must be secure to ensure that no one, either within or outside the country, illegally influences the election.
Internet voting systems must also guarantee the anonymity of each vote and that each eligible citizen votes only once. But, while the latest password and authentication technology can ensure that each voter is represented by one vote, it cannot guarantee that the person casting the vote is the intended voter or that the voter isn't being unduly influenced by others.
And, although encryption technology can separate the vote from the voter's identity, many might not trust the government or an Internet voting company to cleanly sever this connection. The identification process required by Internet voting could provide the means for these organizations to monitor the voting patterns of individuals. With more people logging onto cable and DSL connections that provide open doorways into their computers, these groups could also theoretically view the content of computer hard drives and link that content to voters' identities.
In addition to these technical issues, some believe that, since many people can't afford computers, Web-based elections would be inherently inequitable. But Internet voting would allow rich and poor alike to cast ballots from any connected computer. Libraries already have such computers, and more could be added. Laptop computers, getting cheaper every month, could be set up in community centers, schools and housing projects to ensure access for everyone.
Internet voting in legally binding public elections won't occur until the problematic security issues are ironed out. Until then, computers that aren't connected to the Internet could ably replace the current voting machines. Like Web-connected computers, they could store and present pertinent data on each candidate.
In addition to encouraging informed selections, computers would prepare America for the day when Internet voting becomes viable. Then, if we can overcome the objections that comfortable politicians and their favored constituents will undoubtedly dream up, we can all kick back and relax while revolutionizing our government.