- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

Internet voting soon will be a reality. Arizona Democrats will be allowed to cast ballots on-line in their March 11 primary. Cyber-suffrage is an interesting, cutting-edge and ultimately foolish idea.

Internet voting streams from a worthy goal: to increase citizen participation. Voter turnout in the 1996 presidential election fell below 50 percent and plunged to 36 percent in the 1998 midterm elections. Today's good times and the blurred differences between Democrats and Republicans have inspired millions of Americans to leave political decision-making to others. Offering voters clear, dramatic choices among candidates and parties should encourage Americans toreturn to the polls.

That aside, Internet voting is fraught with current and potential problems.

The most obvious is technical malfunction. In recent days, computer saboteurs shuttered Amazon.com, eBay, Yahoo and several other popular websites for two and three hours at a time. Similar cybervandals could shut down polling websites on Election Day. Imagine the confusion if they struck e-precincts on the West Coast late in the day after polls closed back east, and the networks projected a winner for the White House. Would Internet and brick-and-mortar polls actually close on time, or would both be kept open so long as on-line vote sites remained jammed? If voting were extended after the hackers' damage had been repaired, would balloting be swayed inordinately because voters had seen a winner predicted? The nightmare scenarios are endless.

Beyond simply blocking digital ballot boxes, Internet voting is an engraved invitation to commit fraud. Hackers stealthily could vote early and often, all from the privacy of their own homes. One example of low-level vote tampering offers a cautionary tale. Some musical groups now supply their songs on-line through a technology called MP3. As Rolling Stone magazine's Tom Samiljan reported last Nov. 25, bands have increased their rankings on the MP3 sales charts by repeatedly requesting their own songs. "We entered the chart at about 200," says Jaret Nielson of a Canadian grunge act called Mars.

"Downloading our own songs just three or four times a day put us up to 63." Other bands reportedly have used multiple e-mail accounts to download their tunes repeatedly, thus artificially boosting their perceived popularity. Why not create software to support a presidential or gubernatorial nominee over and over and over again?

If vote fraud sounds like something limited to banana republics, think again. A Florida appellate court removed Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez in March 1998 and replaced him with Joe Carollo, a victim of widespread ballot abuse. The national media dozed through this amazing tale of a nearly successful attempt to steal Miami's City Hall.

In California, state election officials trouped into San Francisco to monitor last November's mayoral vote, the third election since 1995 where Sacramento felt it necessary to oversee balloting by the Bay. A civil grand jury found in 1998 that local voting included "irregularities" as well as "disarray and confusion." Among those identified as eligible voters were 1,800 dead people. According to the Wall Street Journal, several voters were registered at the same liquor store.

It already is difficult enough fighting such situations where people commit fraud at polling stations in front of election officials. Consider how much worse this all would be if individuals could tamper with elections via their home PCs. While perhaps less criminal but still wrong, the Internet will make it easier for someone to vote "on behalf of" Granny who's so confused these days and Uncle Herb who's out of the country on business. Regular mail-in absentee ballots should remain in place for shut-ins, travelers and others who cannot make it to the polls on election day.

Most important, though, Internet voting defines democracy down. Absurdly high taxes aside, this free, prosperous and peaceful nation asks relatively little of its people. It's not too much to expect civic-minded Americans to get off their sofas, put on some clothing and actually present themselves at the polls. There was something both noble and moving, for instance, in watching dozens of Delawareans line up beside a hook-and-ladder at the Hockessin Fire Hall while voting in the Feb. 8 Republican primary.

Like so much in public affairs, voting is losing its solemnity. As a civic ritual, it could become as quaint as the Pledge of Allegiance. George Washington didn't cross the Delaware, nor did U.S. GIs absorb Nazi fire on Omaha Beach, so John Q. Public could vote for president in his boxer shorts with a mouse in one hand and a Michelob in the other.

Deroy Murdock is a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Va., and is a columnist.

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