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Could the Internet Be the Cure for Voter Apathy?

For more than 200 years, one of the hallmark rituals of American life has been Election Day.

Free, regular elections are what keep our democracy strong. We choose our leaders and chart our nation’s course the same way we have for generations: We line up at the local precinct, step into the voting booth and cast a ballot.

Sadly, though, the national trend has seen large numbers of voters across the country sit on the sidelines, choosing not to participate. The 1996 presidential election saw barely 48 percent of eligible voters leave their homes and cast their ballots, and the ’98 mid-term elections drew even less interest by voters.

Voter apathy for the “Internet Generation” is at an all-time high. Less than one in four voters ages 18-24, the future of our republic, bother to vote. To remain a strong, participatory democracy we must address this problem.

We live in a remarkable moment where technology is turning the impossible into the commonplace. Just as computers and the Internet have transformed the way we shop, communicate and work, it is a matter of time before these innovations transform the way we govern ourselves and the way we vote.

Systems being developed for electronic commerce show that much of the technology for secure Internet voting already exists.

The Internet already allows us to invest our money and perform a host of sensitive tasks from wherever we choose. Soon we should be able to make sure a vote over the Internet would be as safe as closing the curtain behind you in a polling place or as safe as mailing your absentee ballot through the U.S. Mail.

Fears Of Voter Fraud

Before we can move forward, however, major concerns about voter fraud and data integrity must still be resolved. Fresh in our minds are the reports of computer hackers who broke into a phone company’s computer system and stole more than 60,000 member passwords. Further, another hacker stole 300,000 credit card numbers from a corporate site and posted thousands of them on a public Web site in an attempt to extort $100,000.

Such cannot be the case with Internet voting. Any Internet voting system must be able to guarantee security far in excess of that required for electronic commerce. It must guarantee to a high degree of certainty that hackers could not break in to block votes, change votes or compromise the sanctity of the secret ballot.

The prospect of “virtual voting” , one of many ways in which technology is already altering America’s politics and government , raises questions that are both exciting and sobering. Would voter turnout go up if people could cast their ballots from home or office or even mobile polling places? Can the Internet draw more citizens into politics by providing more information and direct links to public officials? Or, will Internet voting give advantages to well-organized fringe groups? How do we guarantee that no remote voter is coerced? Do the advantages of greater access to the polls outweigh the possible further erosion of an important civic ritual?

Serious Questions Need Answers

Such questions demand answers that should be well researched and fair-minded. The breakneck speed of technological change will soon force the public and elected officials to reconsider how our democratic processes function. So we support a promising effort to begin the thoughtful debate of these issues.

A symposium organized by The Brookings Institution, on Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C., looked at the Internet’s impact on government and politics, and acted as a catalyst for discussions among citizens, politicians and scholars.

Under the sponsorship of Internet networking firm Cisco Systems, the Brookings’ seminar brought together respected scholars and public officials to discuss the potential impact on the Internet on different areas of government, including voting. Both of us participated in this forum.

Some may wonder why two governors from different parties and different coasts are cooperating in this venture. The simple answer is that we share common concerns for our states and for our nation.

Mutual Concerns

Both our states are home to thriving high-technology centers. Every day we see how profoundly technology and the Internet are changing our lives. We know that government and politics are not exempt from this new revolution.

We now have the chance to explore how the Internet and technological change can be productively incorporated into politics and government. This might help us harness change and make our politics more responsive and more inclusive. This is not about partisan advantage or competitive edge; it seeks to understand how technological change can make American democracy work better for the American public.

Can technology, through Internet voting or some other process, energize voters and reconnect them to the process? It is a question no citizen should ignore.

Davis, a Democrat, is California’s governor. Pataki, a Republican, is governor of New York.

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