Insider Interviews: The Future of E-Voting

National Journal interviews Lori Steele, CEO of Everyone Counts 


Published at NationalJournal.com

For all the talk of the Internet's impact on politics, voting itself has remained largely untouched by the Web -- until now. In a recent interview with NationalJournal.com's David Herbert, Lori Steele, CEO of online election vendor Everyone Counts, argued that the secure Web voting technology is ready. But while Europe is rapidly moving towards online voting, a few false starts have scared off many American voters and elections officials. Edited excerpts follow. Visit the archives page for more Insider Interviews.

NJ: What's the state of online voting in the U.S. and around the world?

Steele: The U.S. was one of the first to try voting over the Internet in 2000. However, they have quickly become near the last of the list when it comes to adopting. So they tried a pilot in 2000 with some counties in Florida and spent $6 million-plus for some 86 -- I think -- people to vote online. They tried another pilot in 2004, which was shut down for political reasons, and that was $40-some million spent so that a few counties in six states could vote. Unfortunately, the negative press from that resulted in a complete stoppage of the idea of voting over the Internet in the U.S.But abroad it has gained popularity and is building momentum. In the United Kingdom, they have been doing pilots over the Internet since 2002 -- they did 2002, 2003, 2007. And once they get past their general election, which as you know in Britain could be called at any time, but no later than 2010, they will likely begin pilots again. They've actually said in Britain that to increase turnout and increase accessibility for voters, it's become clear through their piloting that Internet voting is the only answer....

It looks like the first implementation will be for overseas voters. There is a significant problem in countries outside of the U.S. getting ballots to and from those who live abroad -- expatriates, missionaries, the military -- and everyone in the world is actually concerned about the issue. There are 121 electoral democracies in the world, and 100 require their election officials to do something to help overseas voters. And we know that most of them are looking at serving them via secured Internet solutions.

NJ: Besides the controversial 2004 experiment, what else is holding the U.S. back from exploring online voting?

Steele: From my perspective, the real challenge to implementation in the U.S. is lack of familiarity. People seem very comfortable voting by mail, even -- if they have to -- potentially voting by fax or e-mail, and frankly none of those things provide the security of a military-grade security channel over the Internet. But because it's not something people do every day, they are initially afraid of it. So familiarity seems to take precedence over security and choosing the right answer.

NJ: What needs to happen to start changing that mindset?

Steele: What needs to happen now isn't that the systems need to be made better -- the systems are there, and they're working around the world. What needs to happen is  governments need to understand the difference between e-mail and Internet. E-mail is something everyone's very comfortable with, and yet it's extremely insecure. And military-grade Internet voting is done at the same level of security as passwords that launch nuclear missiles are protected. If you ask me, I prefer that to e-mail any day.

NJ: You booked your first online election in 2003. Back then, did you think Internet voting would have advanced further by now?

Steele: Frankly, it was clear to me that is something that will absolutely happen someday. But in talking to governments, it was also clear to me that it was not going to happen fast. And I thought, "This has to happen," because if done right -- not any Internet solution and not voting by e-mail, but the right technology -- could ensure that anyone in this world who has the right to vote has the ability to vote. And that's important. And I thought, "I can sit back knowing that and watch it happen in 20 years, or I can commit my life to it and make sure it happens sooner." So I think it takes people with the commitment to force positive change when everyone's afraid to make change that will make it happen faster. And frankly, it's happened much slower than I thought it would, but it's happening now, and so it's worth every ounce of energy and every minute of time spent.

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