Michigan voters try an online ballot box

Election 2004

February 07, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DETROIT - For just a moment the other day, as Barbara Barnett sat down in a local union office, its auditorium festooned with green and white balloons, a laptop computer became her own polling place.

With the click of a mouse, Barnett voted for the Democratic presidential hopeful of her choosing, simply by finding an available laptop, well before many other Michigan voters will cast ballots the traditional way in the state caucuses today.

"They make it very easy and accessible," said Barnett, 60, a retired state worker. "I just thought it was a good way to [vote] - it's there, it's done, you just press that button."

With Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry all but certain to win today's election, and his Internet-savvy rival Howard Dean no longer actively campaigning here, the Michigan balloting might be remembered most not for who wins, but for being the testing-ground for the first major use of Internet voting in a presidential election.

Barnett is one of tens of thousands of Michigan voters who applied to vote in the party caucuses through the Internet. Armed with a user name and a password, these voters can cast ballots anywhere they choose, from their home computer to their desk at work, anytime until the caucuses close today at 4 p.m.

State party leaders spearheaded the experiment in online democracy as a way to boost turnout, and they say it has been hugely successful.

"It's been tremendous," says Mark Brewer, executive chairman of the state Democratic Party, who hatched the Internet idea. "It has just been another very convenient way for people to participate in the process."

The state's Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, a Kerry supporter, made a public appearance Thursday to cast her own online ballot in the primary, which will choose 128 delegates, the most of any state so far.

Dean, whose campaign made history by shrewdly harnessing the Internet for grassroots organizing and fund-raising, actively pursued voters who applied for Web ballots. Armed with lists from the state party of people who intend to vote online, Dean's campaign contacted applicants to encourage them to do so early - and to click on Dean.

Before the former Vermont governor abandoned the state on Thursday, choosing to head across Lake Michigan and stage a last stand in Wisconsin's Feb. 17 primary, his campaign nurtured hopes that Internet voting could help deliver a substantial boost to their candidate.

And they continue to hope that, by contacting the voters who went to churches, union offices and libraries during January to register for online ballots, some will still cast votes for their candidate.

"What it really does is affords us an opportunity to really weigh in with [voters] in this process in a way that we never were able to do before," said Al Garrett, president of Michigan's chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which backs Dean. It has poured resources into registering its members for online voting and providing Internet access.

"It's not just about Dean winning Michigan," said Garrett. "It's about delegate count as well."

The Internet voting program has drawn its share of critics. Civil rights groups have complained that by encouraging the use of the Web for voting, the Democrats are shutting out lower-income or less-educated people who typically have more difficulty accessing a computer.

Some technology analysts say online voting raises the risk of security problems, in particular someone hacking into a database and reviewing or changing votes. Indeed, worries about security apparently led the Pentagon to decide this week against allowing U.S. citizens who are overseas to use an Internet system to vote this fall.

"There's nothing to assure the privacy of the final act of voting," said Michael Cornfield, research director at the George Washington University Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. "We're in a trial-and-error era with the Internet, and that's fine for lots of things, but it's not fine for elections."

But none of that has stopped campaigns from taking advantage of the option, which has revolutionized the way they conduct the turn-out-the-vote efforts that can be especially crucial in a caucus state.

The Kerry camp targeted places with high Internet usage - like college campuses - and held events where people could sign up for the online ballots. Kerry's 26-year-old daughter, Vanessa, and his 30-year-old stepson, Chris Heinz, were hosts of college "Internet voting parties" where people could register.

Kerry's camp also wrote to churches, offering organizers who could come help parishioners apply for online ballots, "in order to target a group that maybe is not as likely to vote online," said Mark Kornblau, a spokesman.

The two major unions supporting Dean, the Service Employees International Union and AFSCME, both deployed field workers with wireless laptops to work sites where members could apply for online ballots.

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