Could e-voting help avoid election confusion?

All eyes were on the US state of Florida Wednesday, where a ballot recount will decide the election for either George W. Bush or Al Gore.

More than once after the polls closed Tuesday, news media were forced to change their predictions about the state's result. At about 2:20 a.m. North American EST Wednesday, major networks including CNN, NBC, CBS, and ABC began calling a George W. Bush victory after an apparent narrow win in the state of Florida -- only to retract their estimates a couple of hours later as the razor-thin margin in Florida was certain to trigger an automatic recount of the votes that could make the final outcome uncertain for several days.

Vice President Al Gore reportedly had conceded victory, only to retract his concession as the Florida count got closer and closer. A 4.46 a.m. EST report on CNN.com said that the margin had narrowed down to a mere 224 votes, with Bush still ahead.

Florida's 25 electoral votes will decide the final outcome of the national election. If the recount upholds Bush's win in Florida, the Texas governor will have secured 271 electoral votes, while the addition of the Florida votes would push Gore's total to 274, allowing either of the two candidates to secure a large enough share of the Electoral College to become the 43rd president of the United States.

Much of the current uncertainty was caused because only some precincts in Florida use electronic vote-counting technology, said Alex Folkes, press and campaigns officer for the UK Commission on Electoral Reform.

"It's a lot more of the richer precincts that have it. This is why, especially in Florida, you've got the more Bush-friendly precincts reporting first -- they can just push the switch and get the votes out. But the bigger, poorer precincts were by and large reporting later. That's why Gore started pulling back ahead. More of the hand-counted ballots started coming in."

"Of course you would have 100 per cent accuracy with electronic voting. That would prevent the necessity of a recount," said Hans van Wijk, who markets electronic voting systems for Nedap. In the Netherlands, some 80 per cent of precincts use e-voting, he said.

"Mechanical counting is not very accurate, so they need recounts. And then there's a lot of voting done on paper and then put through a scanner -- you also have a rather high inaccuracy. And then of course there are absentee votes by mail, which gives doubtful results as well, because in filling in a paper somebody can put his vote a little bit beside the line, and everybody is wondering if it's a valid vote or not."

Speed must always take a back seat to accuracy when it comes to electronic voting, said spokesman Conor Falvey of the Irish Department of Environment and Local Government, which is examining various voting systems in preparation for a trial run in the next general elections, probably in 2002. "You can be sure that if the Irish government are going to commit to running a pilot project, they will want to be as sure as they can humanly be that the system is secure and will deliver a valid result. That will be of absolutely paramount consideration."

But Dublin-based electronic security company Baltimore Technologies said reliability is no problem. "Online voting would not only dramatically reduce the count time but also ensure a more reliable initial result," said a spokeswoman. She added that online voting would help older, ill, and disabled voters to take part in the polls.

For now, though, electronic voting technology is still a question of updating the equipment used at polling places. Voting via the Internet is still a long way off, Folkes said. Questions of security and hacking need to be answered, as well as issues of voter integrity.

"Who is actually casting the vote? It's one thing to issue code numbers or code words, but the apathetic can give them away or sell them, and we can't allow this. The other issue is pressure: It may be me casting my vote, but who is standing behind me? In a regular election, no one is allowed into the voting booth with you," Folkes said.

Others agreed that full-scale Internet-based electronic voting will not arrive until a host of Internet security vulnerabilities and complexities are properly addressed.

Modest attempts to assess the potential results of electronic voting on Election Day are being carried out through a US Department of Defense-controlled experiment accepting official votes sent online by 250 highly-screened US military personnel overseas and a few mock trials being recorded in parts of California and Arizona.

However, the potential tsunami of online security threats -- ranging from denial-of-service attacks, hacker theft, and manipulation of registered voters' identities and ballots, viruses, and virtual espionage -- is far too risky to even consider mass remote voting at this time, said Doug Lewis, director of the Election Centre in Houston, Texas.

"There are lots of people who say they want to do it and say they are willing to do it, not understanding the elections process and technology process. That's our biggest concern; it's how do we get there?" Lewis said. "Right now, the truth is, we don't have enough answers."

Lewis said it would be detrimental to voter confidence about the sanctity of on-line votes if they were blocked due to high Web traffic bottlenecks, or if scores of votes were deleted, stolen, or lost, thereby having a major impact on a very tight race.

Convincing a population growing more comfortable with online shopping that casting an electronic vote bears little resemblance to an Internet transaction, and features hardly any of the safety nets e-commerce carries, is a daunting task, Lewis said. Also, hiring talent and securing the cost to upgrade local government systems to handle servers, firewalls, and sophisticated routing equipment to support heavy load balancing is another concern.

"One of the unfortunate things about the Internet is it has made everyone gratification-happy instantaneously. But we are not going to be able to get this done in Internet time," Lewis remarked.

To secure its online voting assistance program, the US government is deploying commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software using open standards with encryption and electronic signature technology through Department of Defense PKI (public key infrastructure) built into the product, according to Susan Hanson, spokeswoman for the department.

She said the program is being operated in accordance with a county in South Carolina, two counties in Florida, a county in Texas, and Weber County in Utah.

Penelope Bonsall, director of election administration for US Federal Election Commission, said 50 active-duty military personnel at secure military installations overseas who registered to vote at each of the five counties were carefully screened and selected to participate. She said the number from each county was made purposely small to have no chance to influence any vote outcome.

The government program does not tabulate the cast votes. That occurs by the control board at the corresponding county level where the vote is duplicated and appropriated for reading. Election and government officials are to be on-site to oversee the authentication process.

"It's supervised rather than unsupervised, which you would have from somebody at home. It's the front end of a process, and a very good experiment, but it's the front-end system that may come into play. It's the beginning prototype," Bonsall said.

Because of the slow adoption of PKI technology, security experts see a difficult road ahead to equip users with the necessary tools and infrastructure needed to responsibly cast their votes online and provide authentication and authorisation.

"You can have the same guy voting 10 times if you don't have the infrastructure to determine that the guy on the other side is who he is claiming to be," said Narender Mangalam, director of security strategy for Vigilante.com. "It's a challenge just getting people to get their viruses updated. Getting them to get their PKI authentication in place is something else entirely."

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