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Will Californians ever vote online?

Allan Hough

In June, 14 current and retired postal workers in Washington, D.C. and in the state of Washington began a one-week hunger strike. They were protesting against Congress requiring the U.S. Postal Service to make mandatory healthcare and pension contributions. Some employees believe it is making the organization unprofitable.

It's no secret that the U.S. Postal Service is experiencing serious financial problems. Last September, Megan Brennan, Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Postal Service, announced that the company is downsizing its operations by fully or partly closing approximately half of all processing centers across the country. “We simply need fewer facilities to process less mail,” said Brennan.

The fact that this is happening in an election year troubles California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. “I'm very concerned about the closing of the processing centers and have urged the Post Office and Congress to delay closure of any processing centers until after the November election,” says Bowen.

About half of California voters have chosen to vote by mail and therefore rely on the post office to deliver their ballots on time, which wasn’t necessarily happening before the downsize. According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, about 26,000 ballots arrived too late to be counted in California's November 2010 general election.

Demand from citizens to vote without going to polling places has increased dramatically over the last three decades. In 1978, only 4.4 percent of Californians who participated in elections voted by mail. By 2010, it was up to 48 percent. That means almost five million ballots are turned in by mail in California.

The main reason for the increase is simple, says Public Policy Institute of California research fellow Eric McGhee: “It's definitely a convenience thing. It has made possible for the United States something approximating an early voting system."

With the imminent downsizing of the U.S. Postal Service, this system is not sustainable.

A postmark-based solution

Currently, ballots must arrive no later than 8pm on election day to be counted. Previous closures of mail processing centers in California have already caused delays. In the 2010 state primary, more than 12,500 ballots in Riverside County came in too late, even though they were sent in on time. Those ballots were counted only after a judge’s order.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen wants to count all ballots that have been stamped by the post office by the end of day. “The specifics are up for debate, but if we are going to continue to have downgrades in the mail system, I think we won't have much choice if we want to continue voting by mail system,” says Bowen.

The idea of voting by main began as a way to improve voter turnout. But since it became available to everyone in 1978, the percentage of eligible Californians who vote has actually dropped from 48 percent to 44 percent.

Rethinking Tuesdays

Another idea to boost voter turnout is to move election day from a Tuesday to a weekend, so that more people could vote at polling places.

“Why do we vote on Tuesday?... Absolutely no good reason whatsoever,” claims Jacob Soboroff, executive director of a group called “Why Tuesday?" In February, Soboroff gave a talk at a TED conference in Palm Springs, California. “In 1845, Americans traveled by horse and buggy. It took a day or longer to get to the county seat to vote and a day to go back and you couldn't travel on a Sabbath. So Tuesday it was,” Soboroff explained.

Tuesdays were the most convenient day for farmers – their so-called “court day” – when they were usually in town to take care of business. So they could vote, too. America is no longer such an agrarian society, and many think the time has come to acknowledge that in elections.

A bill called The Weekend Voting Act was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives back in 2009 and reintroduced this March by Democrats John Larson, from Connecticut, and Steve Israel, from New York. “One out of four people say they do not vote in federal elections because weekdays are too busy for them. They are balancing their jobs, their schedules and their kids,“ says Israel.

Currently, the bill to change that is in committee. And there are critics. Secretary Debra Bowen, for one, believes that it wouldn't be such a good idea to put election on a day of worship.

“If you were to move elections to a weekend, you couldn't choose just Saturday or Sunday because both days are religious holidays for some people,” says Bowen. “So then you would have to have a two-day election, and in California that would mean keep 25,000 polling places secure at night with voted ballots. So it would dramatically increase the cost.”

Bowen would prefer election day to be a national holiday, but stay in the middle of the week, so people couldn't make a three day vacation out of it.

What about the Internet?

Another potential idea would be to vote online, but many Americans do not trust the Internet when it comes to elections.

“Like almost all computer systems, voting systems are vulnerable. And when you connect them to the Internet, that vulnerability increases,” said Bruce McConnell, the top cyber security official with the Department of Homeland Security. During his recent speech to a group of election officials and watchdogs in Santa Fe, New Mexico, McConnell stressed that “the security structure around Internet voting is both immature and under resourced,” adding that “it's premature to deploy Internet voting in real elections at this time.”

McConnell explained that not even all government departments use special ID cards with chips to enter buildings or access computer systems – it's problematic and costly.

Secretary Bowen is also concerned about the cost: “It's clearly something we could do, but you would have to have your own Internet. The military, for example doesn't rely on public Internet for anything that requires security. And then when you start to add up potential costs, you quickly decide that it's better to continue to use paper ballots, process them electronically, and have the ability to audit.”

The ability to ensure against voter fraud is the biggest sticking point for Bowen. “Unlike, for example, an ATM transaction where anybody – and particularly the owner of the account – can verify that the bank has handled the transaction properly, there is no way for a voter who votes electronically to go track whether his ballot was counted properly. And in fact there isn't anyone to audit that transaction,” says Bowen. Currently, the only online tool California is working on is voter registration.

Nationally, there is more of an initiative to implement online voting. The Pentagon is looking at that option for the military and U.S. citizens who live abroad. Online voting is currently available in other countries, including parts of Switzerland and Canada, as well as being considered in Norway and the United Kingdom.

While many believe that online voting is an inevitable future, it's clear that, locally, it's not going to happen any time soon.