Online voting for 2004?

This year's US election may mark the last time Americans have to put on socks and shoes to vote for a president.

          This year's US election may mark the last time Americans have to put on socks and shoes to vote for a president.

          Let's hope that's not the case, but given the extent to which internet vote-buying and vote-swapping schemes have sprung up this election cycle, there's reason to fret about the advent of full-fledged browser-based balloting in 2004. We're talking about the same ball of wax here.

          On the other hand, Congress may see this year's online political shenanigans as a wake-up call and attempt to restore order to the process . . . a possibility that comes fraught with a different set of risks.

          Vote-selling sites such as www.vote-auction.com would appear to be easy prey for lawmakers. Libertarians and the internet's anything-goes anarchist wing might stamp their feet in protest, but you can't buy and sell votes offline, so you shouldn't be able to buy and sell votes online. Even congressmen go to jail every now and then for doing this kind of thing.

          The vote-swapping sites - www.nadertrader.org, www.voteex change.org, and the like - are more intriguing, although I suspect they too will be a short-lived phenomenon.

          There's no denying their appeal, however.

          As a Gore partisan living in Massachusetts - there was a serious temptation to swap my figuratively meaningless vote with a Nader backer in a more hotly contested state. Even though I'm no fan of Nader, I might have been willing to vote for him here where a protest vote won't effect the outcome. My swap-mate pulls the lever for Gore in a state where every vote could conceivably tip the balance.

          It's a win-win situation, right?

          Well, not exactly. Presuming enough voters support these 'net-based exchanges, there is also the matter of subverting the Electoral College. The first time a candidate wins a state's electoral votes through this type of tactical voting will likely be the last time. Wounded supporters of the loser will howl indignantly over what they will reasonably characterise as dirty pool.

          So look for federal legislation outlawing these vote-swapping web sites, which this year seemed to be ad hoc in nature, but could blossom into e-businesses by 2004 unless weed-killer is applied.

          Now a peer-to-peer Gnutella-like operation would be more difficult to clamp down on legislatively, but also far less likely to have impact.

          Which brings us back to the prospect of actually voting online. We're seeing online registration and isolated experiments with web-based balloting, so momentum certainly is building toward this ill-advised leap into the unknown. Here are just three reasons why online voting would be a mistake:

          The risk of undermining public confidence in our electoral system would be enormous, no matter how secure an online voting system might prove. Perception will be everything among the masses, which means there will be hell to pay the first time a hacker gets within a country mile of a close election.

          Low-tech fraud might be an even greater risk. What's to keep a bully cyber-voter from casting not only his own ballot but also those of his wife, children and elderly parents? Certainly not a user name and password. Today, a cop at your local polling place does this job.

          There's no compelling justification to take these risks with the foundation of our democracy. The notion that a lot more people would vote if only voting was easier is pure poppycock. With precious few exceptions, people don't vote because they are apathetic, uninformed, lazy, or all three. Making the mechanics of voting easier for these folks won't do anything to improve the electoral process or our government.

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