Michigan Democrats to use Internet Voting in Upcoming Caucus

In Michigan’s upcoming Democratic Caucus on February 7, citizens will have a new way of voting–voting online using the Internet from their home or at public Internet terminals around the state. The Internet voting will be offered in addition to the traditional means of voting via mail or at one of nearly 600 caucus sites in Michigan.

The Michigan Democratic Caucus is part of the process by which the national Democratic Party will choose their nominee for president, eventually narrowing the current field of nine candidates down to one who will be confirmed at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. The Michigan Caucus follows Iowa’s caucus, New Hampshire’s primary, and the so-called “Super Tuesday Primaries” on February 3, but with 153 delegates, Michigan may play an important role in deciding the Democratic candidate.

While there has been a significant amount of criticism leveled at electronic voting in the past few months, especially against Diebold, a maker of electronic voting systems that are known to have significant security problems as well as VoteHere, who’s computer systems were recently broken into and blueprints stolen, Internet voting has not been given much press coverage. In the days after the 2000 election, it was hailed as a way of preventing what happened in Florida, but since that time expectations have been scaled back.

Even with the Democratic National Committee’s vote to approve the use of Internet voting for the Michigan Caucus, questions about security prevent Internet voting from becoming widespread. The Michigan Democratic Party is working to make sure the process will be secure and that people will be prevented from voting more than once. However, in a recent AP article Mark Brewer, executive chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, was quoted as saying that “We’re not guaranteeing a perfect election…Nobody can do that, every election has it’s flaws.” Little information has been disclosed about security systems to be used during caucus voting, only that people will be mailed the address to a private website and provided with some type of identification number to vote online. The security concerns are not just paranoia, in a recent primary in Canada an online voting system was knocked offline by hackers.

Party officials point to the success of Internet voting in other states as a testament to its feasibility. On March 7, 2000, Arizona held the first legally binding election over the Internet allowing people to use the Internet to vote in the state’s Democratic primary. The primary set a record with the largest turnout since the primary process was setup in 1984, with 39,942 of the 86,907 votes being cast over the Internet. The Alaskan Republican Party also held a non-binding straw poll in January of 2000 using the Internet. Both of these were conducted without any reported problems.

The federal government has also conducted tests on the feasibility of Internet voting. In the 2000 election, the Voting Over the Internet (VOI) Project allowed 84 voters to vote online at a cost of $6.4 million dollars, or $73,809 per vote. While the small sample size and “security issues” make it hard to draw meaningful conclusions from the 2000 VOI Project, the plan has been expanded for 2004 as part of the Help America Vote Act passed in the aftermath of the 2000 election. For the 2004 program, the Department of Defense and the consulting firm Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting of Enron notoriety) have collaborated on the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE). SERVE is designed to give statistically meaningful results, allowing up to 100,000 offshore military members to vote online.

While a recently announced partnership with the internet security firm VeriSign should help alleviate some of the potential security problems with SERVE, Accenture, the main company working on SERVE has a dubious history. Accenture has profited while working on the privatization of public services, from welfare systems to voting systems and has consistently pattern over-billed and exceeded estimates on projects. The company is a member of the US Coalition of Service Industries (USCSI) a coalition of service-based corporations lobbying for WTO-GATS agenda of privatizing public services. The company formerly had ties with Enron, and has a working relationship with Halliburton. Moreover, the company is incorporated in the offshore tax haven of Bermuda.

It is hard to say if Michigan’s Democratic Caucus will have any bearing on the future of Internet voting, as the technology is clearly not ready for widespread usage. It has not been adopted anywhere, as security concerns are still a major issue, especially in large elections where the results are considered more important and thus targets for manipulation.

People wishing to vote in the Democratic Caucus must be registered voters and must publicly declare that they are Democrats. However, they are not required to join the Michigan Democratic Party. Online registration begins on January 1st and ends on January 31st at 6:00pm on the Michigan Democratic Party website.