Too soon for online-only voting


POSTED: Thursday, May 28, 2009

Neighborhood board elections relying heavily on Internet balloting resulted in abysmal voter turnout, indicating that online voting, if ready for prime time where needed, has not been tested enough to take the lead role.

Other experiments should be conducted without undermining election results, as this week's round came close to doing.

Given the choice of voting online or by telephone, only 7,289 of 115,000 registered voters on Oahu cast ballots, a turnout rate of 6 percent, compared with 28 percent in neighborhood-board elections two years ago. Internet voting was allowed in the 2007 board elections but accounted for only 10 percent of the total vote, most of which was cast by mail.

This year's voting was billed as the first paperless, all-electronic election in the nation, although other elections including the Internet have been conducted across the country — or withdrawn. In the 2004 election, 100,000 military personnel and other voters overseas were slated to vote via the Internet in the primary and general elections in Hawaii and six other states, but the Pentagon abruptly canceled the pilot program after four prominent cyber-security experts urged that it be shut down.

In last year's general election, at least six states allowed the casting of ballots electronically by either e-mail or a secure online system, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of those were directed at voters living overseas. State Sen. Will Espero of Ewa introduced a bill to create a pilot program for online voting in next year's elections to be available to Hawaii voters living overseas, but it received no consideration. (Some last-minute overseas voters make do with faxes and PDF files.)

After last year's elections, the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology reported, “;While threats to telephone, e-mail and the Web can be mitigated through the use of procedural and technical security controls, they are still more serious and challenging to overcome.”;

Hackers are unlikely to be motivated in tampering with elections at the neighborhood-board level. And many voters who received ballots and passwords during the first week of May could have misplaced them or simply not gone to the trouble of powering up their computers.

The low voter participation contrasts with the 49 percent registered-voter turnout in the spirited April special election in Leeward Oahu of J. Ikaika Anderson to succeed his former boss, the late Barbara Marshall, on the City Council. Ballots were sent by mail to registered voters and, unlike the neighborhood-board procedure, were filled out and returned by mail or at centralized drop-off locations.

That method is similar to an Oregon law that has resulted in higher voter turnout and should be tested in Hawaii legislative districts. The neighborhood-board elections indicate that online voting could be used to supplement such a system but should not yet be made the principal method of voting.