Point, Click, Vote
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TERENCE SMITH: Michigan State freshman Kevin Smith is voting for the first time in a national election, online in his dorm room. And with a click of her mouse, sophomore Emma Ward is casting a ballot for her choice, John Kerry.
EMMA WARD: It was easy and it was fun. We’re so used to clicking on things and continuing, it was like second nature.
TERENCE SMITH: At the Detroit headquarters of the powerful American federation of state, county and municipal employees, union members displayed their chosen candidate, Howard Dean, on their shirtfronts as they voted, also online.
They are among tens of thousands of voters who are participating in the largest and most ambitious experiment in Internet voting to date in this country.
An estimated one-third of those who cast ballots in tomorrow’s Michigan caucuses will do so over the Internet. Earlier this week at the Michigan Democratic Party headquarters in Lansing, state Executive Chairman Mark Brewer discussed this exercise, unique in the primary season.
MARK BREWER: We’ve been very pleased with the results so far. Nearly 120,000 people have applied to vote by mail or over the Internet. That alone makes it the third largest caucus we’ve ever held in this state, and we haven’t even gotten to caucus day yet.
TERENCE SMITH: Internet voting is not entirely new: It was tried on a smaller scale in primaries in Arizona and Alaska four years ago.
But the stakes are much higher this year in Michigan’s caucus: 128 delegates, the largest bloc of any primary so far, are up for grabs. Sen. John Kerry is comfortably ahead in the polls here, but other campaigns, including that of early front-runner, Howard Dean, have been going door-to-door urging voters to boot up.
HOWARD DEAN: I need you to vote. I’m going to tell you how to vote. I want you to vote on the Internet and I want you to do it right now and I want you to get all your friends to do the same thing.
SPOKESMAN, the Service Employees International Union: Within seven days, you should get that package in the mail.
TERENCE SMITH: For some voters, that requires an education process.
The Service Employees International Union, for example, went to this geriatric center to train workers to vote electronically for the union’s choice, Howard Dean. Bob Allison is communications director for SEIU in Michigan.
BOB ALLISON: The Internet to us has basically just been another tool that we’ve been able to use to get out and organize our members. I mean, ten years ago, we were going to work sites and we were getting people registered to vote. Today, we’re able to go with laptops and we’re able to essentially have them cast … get registered right there on the spot.
TERENCE SMITH: And leading up to tomorrow’s vote, the union has been working the phones to ensure that the members who registered to vote online follow through and cast their ballots.
And the state Democratic Party, which is running the caucus, has been fielding hundreds of calls about how to vote with a click.
Voting online is a two-step process in Michigan. Since New Year’s Day, voters have been able to apply over the Internet for a ballot, which arrives in the mail, bearing a unique user number and password. Voters can mark that and mail it, or designate their choices from the comfort of their own computer.
KATHLEEN GRAY, Detroit Free Press: For some people, it’s been very easy. They’ve been excited about it. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have already cast their votes.
TERENCE SMITH: Kathleen Gray, political reporter for the Detroit Free Press, says online voting offers a major convenience for Michigan’s rural residents.
KATHLEEN GRAY: In more than half the counties in Michigan, there is only one caucus site. So there are people who will have to drive quite a long way. Up in the upper peninsula, that drive could be 60 miles one way. So I think it’ll certainly benefit those folks, who have only a limited amount of caucus sites they can go to.
TERENCE SMITH: To encourage online voting, the Michigan Democratic Party has directed voters to some 1,500 sites around the state where they can get free Internet access.
Here at the Detroit Public Library, voters can cast computer ballots up to 4 o’clock tomorrow, when the regular polling places close.
TERENCE SMITH: That public access is partly designed to close the so-called digital divide.
Nationally, only 39 percent of households with incomes of less than $25,000 a year have Internet access, while 94 percent of households that earn over $75,000 a year are wired.
That discrepancy prompted seven of the nine Democratic campaigns to protest the Michigan online voting scheme to the Democratic National Committee when it was first announced. Only the Dean and Wesley Clark campaigns embraced it from the outset.
JOEL FERGUSON: I think the Internet voting is something that is, for Michigan, ahead of its time.
TERENCE SMITH: Lansing developer Joel Ferguson, a Kerry backer and member of the Democratic National Committee, argued before the DNC that online voting is fundamentally discriminatory.
JOEL FERGUSON: I feel that there’s a tremendous digital divide, where we have half, 46 percent, of the White households have Internet capability, only 23 percent of minority households.
TERENCE SMITH: The DNC rejected the protest and now all the campaigns, like that of Sen. John Edwards, are pursuing online votes. Edwards’ state director, Derek Albert:
DEREK ALBERT: If we are going to do Internet voting, let’s make it fair for everybody. There’s a great digital divide in this state, there’s a great digital divide in America, and that’s not something we should play with at this time, because this election is so crucial.
TERENCE SMITH: Albert Garrett, the president of the AFSCME Council 25 in Detroit, downplays the concerns over the digital divide.
ALBERT GARRETT: I think that it’s exaggerated. I think that there are ample opportunities throughout Detroit and Michigan if a person wanted to vote by the Internet. The fact of the matter is, while every home in Michigan may not have a computer, most workers are exposed to computers.
TERENCE SMITH: Some of the complaints about the online voting process have been technical. Alex Sagady, a computer-savvy environmental consultant, said he received what he described as a “hostile message” when he tried to vote.
ALEX SAGADY: “This page must be viewed over a secure channel. The page you are trying to access is secured with secure sockets, layer SSL.” This is a very unfriendly looking thing, this message you get back here. The average person is just going to throw up their hands and wonder.
TERENCE SMITH: Security is a major concern and the party is depending on an electronic database to prevent fraud. But just this week, the Pentagon dropped plans to use Internet voting for U.S. citizens overseas out of concern for the security of the system.
Nonetheless, the Michigan experiment got a top-level vote of approval yesterday when the Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, and her husband cast their ballots electronically.