Joint Commission on Technology and Science

September 24, 1997, Richmond

Internet Voting

At the second full commission meeting of the 1997 interim, the IBM Corporation demonstrated the "Voting Booth of the Future," a multimedia kiosk developed by IBM at the request of the Connecticut Secretary of State for use at the 1995 Worldwide Special Olympics. The system uses still photos, graphics, and sound to show how citizens vote today and how voting over the Internet could look in the future.

Under the current voting process, voter participation is declining, especially among 18-to-25-year-olds (the age group with the most access to computers and the Internet); many people do not like to go to a polling place because it is inconvenient or inaccessible; and the current process, over 200 years old, is expensive. For these reasons, the IBM representative urged Virginia (and other states) to consider voting via the Internet, which millions of people can access from their homes, offices, schools, and libraries. Short of or in addition to the actual act of voting, the Internet could also be used to provide information on registration drives, distribute registration cards, register voters, communicate between election precincts, provide information about the candidates, take public opinion polls, report campaign finances, distribute sample ballots, redistrict, and request absentee ballots.

Technology currently exists that enables citizens to request absentee ballots via the Internet; however, no state yet permits it. Virginia could be the first state to develop a pilot project that would permit absentee voters to make an advance request for an absentee ballot. This would be the smallest implementation step that any state could take towards voting via the Internet. Other implementation steps include passage of electronic signature legislation (which Virginia did in 1997), passage of other enabling legislation and/or constitutional amendments, determining the look and presentation of the Internet ballot, and expanding the pilot project to permit the actual act of voting an absentee ballot via the Internet.

Staff discussed the legal and practical requirements of voting via the Internet. For example, Article II, section 3 of Virginia's Constitution discusses the method of voting in fairly broad language; however, the section provides that "the ballot box or voting machine shall be kept in public view and shall not be opened, nor the ballots canvassed nor the votes counted, in secret." Current statutory provisions in Title 24.2 require the presence of multiple officers of election and observers during the casting of votes and counting of ballots, which is meant to assure the public that the electoral process is fair and free from fraud and collusion. The question arises whether or not a personal computer, located in a voter's home and used to cast a vote via the Internet, violates the letter, the spirit, or both of these constitutional and statutory provisions. On the other hand, Article II, section 3 also authorizes votes to be cast by absentee ballot "as provided by law," which bestows on the General Assembly fairly broad discretion regarding absentee voting.

Other practical and legal considerations include ensuring that the voter is eligible, is registered, votes only once, cannot prove how he voted (to prevent vote-buying), and maintains the right to cast a write-in vote; the ballot is cast in secret and is kept secret; and voting via the Internet is as convenient, accessible, simple, accurate, and reliable as the current voting process. Additional concerns include the need for alternative voting mechanisms in cases of equipment failure or system crashes, the ability to verify the electronic voting process or audit trail, the ability to secure equipment and material in cases of recounts or contested elections, and the true monetary savings to the Commonwealth if voting via the Internet is in addition to the current voting process.

The Honorable Kenneth R. Plum, Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Diane E. Horvath