February 3, 2004
Mark Brewer, the executive chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, discusses the state's Internet primary voting initiative, and its main goal to boost voter turnout and pave the way for future elections.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts
TERENCE SMITH: What was the origin of the idea of going
to Internet voting? Was it your idea? I mean, what started it?
MARK BREWER: I think the origin was in our party's philosophy of trying to make voting as accessible and convenient as possible.
As we started to plan the delegate selection process a
year ago, as we held party meetings around the state, the idea bubbled
up and the direction of the party leadership in this state was: make
TERENCE SMITH: And did you look at Arizona and other previous experiments in this?
|How voters cast online ballots|
MARK BREWER: Yes. We studied the Arizona experience, I
talked to the chair in Arizona at the time, we studied the various reports
that have analyzed Internet voting, and we also talked to a number of
companies who offer services in this area, before deciding how to proceed.
TERENCE SMITH: Were you warned of pitfalls?
MARK BREWER: Oh, yes. And we took all those into account
as we moved forward and tried to create a system that uses the best
existing security protocols.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell us simply, if you can, very simply,
how it works, how a voter votes online.
MARK BREWER: Well, the first requirement, and it's an
important security requirement, is that a voter make an application.
This is only open to registered voters. We're never going to see this
voter, so we need some way to verify their identity so we don't have
false applications. So there's a very simple application form that we
have prepared, which we've distributed, the candidates have distributed
TERENCE SMITH: And you can do it online?
MARK BREWER: You can do it online. So it comes in a paper
form, which you can return to us, or it can be done online. And then
we match that application against our statewide list of registered voters.
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hm.
MARK BREWER: And the match rate has been about 90 percent. There've been a few errors, few unregistered voters who attempted to get through. And then that voter is mailed a ballot. And they -- it's a paper ballot that they can either fill out and return -- it's a mail ballot in that situation -- or they can file Internet voting instructions on the ballot, including two passcodes that are unique to that voter, and go to a special Web site we've set up and vote on the Internet.
TERENCE SMITH: So with a click of a mouse?
MARK BREWER: With a click of a mouse.
TERENCE SMITH: Any sense at this point, a few days before the caucus,
how many people are doing it and how readily people have taken to it?
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 got to caucus day yet. It's been very popular
with the voters. People are talking about their Internet ballots and
discussing elections among themselves. Very few people actually voted.
Many people are holding their ballots, waiting to see the results in
other states and waiting for the final campaign days here in Michigan.
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hm. And so you expect these online votes to come
in, tumbling in the days just before the
MARK BREWER: So far, the proportion has been 50-50 by mail or by Internet. But the longer people wait, the more likely they'll use the Internet option to make sure the vote arrives on time.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me about the response of the campaigns. Initially
two -- the Dean and Clark campaigns -- embraced this, as I'm told, and
the other seven at the time opposed it.
MARK BREWER: Well, actually, there were really three phases. When we first proposed this last spring and all the candidates were briefed, nobody opposed it. All the candidates were fine with it.
Then, in July, after the Democratic National Committee had approved it and we were well along the way of implementing it, seven of the nine candidates, as you indicated, objected, raising discrimination and security concerns.
That challenge was ultimately resolved in our favor by the DNC last fall, and now all the campaigns have embraced it. Many of them have their own Web pages devoted to this process, they've been doing mailings in the state containing the applications, they've been doing e-mail to their supporters encouraging them to apply and to vote online.
|Working to bridge the digital divide|
TERENCE SMITH: What about the comment of the Reverend Al Sharpton,
who described this as a high-tech poll tax?
MARK BREWER: That's not the case at all. I mean, first of all, this is not an Internet-only system. I think everybody would agree that if it was Internet-only, that certainly would be discriminatory.
We are conducting the most accessible election ever held in this country -- 600 polling places on caucus day, five weeks of voting by mail and by Internet, so we've got alternative methods.
And particularly that vote-by-mail option, I mean, for the price of
two 37-cent stamps somebody can make an application to vote by mail,
get the ballot back from us, at our expense, and then put another stamp
on it and vote by mail. So in no sense is this a high-tech poll tax.
TERENCE SMITH: [Sharpton's] argument, and the arguments that opponents have made, is that Internet access is much greater among more affluent, frequently white families than it is among less-affluent, frequently African American families or other minorities in this state.
But that's just a statistical fact. How do you overcome that?
MARK BREWER: Well, it's certainly true. The disparity is not as bad as it used to be, and these claims that it's two-to-one are erroneous. The gap is closing.
But the other thing we have done in addition to making voting by mail available is that we have gone out and found places where people can get free Internet access in this state -- public libraries, schools and other places, over 1,500 places scattered throughout the state. The other thing that has happened is that churches, civil rights organizations who've been supportive of this have offered their own computer facilities.
Ministers in the city of Detroit have told their parishioners: come
in and use the church's computers to make your application and to vote
your ballot. So we believe that we've provided sufficient access to
the Internet for those who don't have access at home.
MARK BREWER: So far, people who've actually voted, their average age is in the mid-50s, which I think is contrary to all expectations. Now, that's a small sample.
It's only about one-fifth of all the people who've applied and actually
have ballots. But the early returns indicate that this is not as was
perceived, somehow favorable to young people.
TERENCE SMITH: But is the other side of that coin also true? Do you
have any evidence that you are bringing into the process Internet-savvy
younger people who don't traditionally vote?
MARK BREWER: Yes. We also know that, not only from the data but anecdotally,
from talking to young people at meetings and other places who've said
I've never voted before, but you've made it so convenient, so easy,
that I'm going to participate this time.
TERENCE SMITH: On the digital divide and discrimination issue that
we were talking about before, what about some of the minority groups
in the state of Michigan -- Arab Americans, Hispanics, and others? How
have they reacted to this?
MARK BREWER: It's been very favorable. And we have traditionally produced ballots in Spanish and Arabic in this state to outreach to those groups. But all of those groups have embraced the Internet voting procedure -- the civil rights community, the NAACP and others are encouraging their members to vote this way by offering computers in their offices. There are a number of churches, black churches in Detroit, where the same thing is occurring.
The Arab American community has launched a particularly intensive outreach effort in the Arab American community in Dearborn, particularly, in this state, encouraging people to vote by mail, holding rallies, and so forth. So they've really embraced this whole process as a way to mobilize their communities.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you expect this to produce a record turnout?
MARK BREWER: It may. Already, based on the turnout so far, it is the
second-largest caucus we've ever held, and we could well break the record
by the time Saturday is done.
TERENCE SMITH: And how much of that would you attribute to the Internet
MARK BREWER: I think a fair amount of it. Of course, the other factor
is that we are holding our caucus much earlier than we've ever held
it before, and so we've gotten much more attention from the candidates
than in the past. But there's no question that the accessibility and
ease of Internet voting has contributed to that turnout.
TERENCE SMITH: I guess I'm surprised that the state, with this large
number of delegates at stake, has not attracted more attention, more
advertising, and more visits by the candidates.
MARK BREWER: Well, we've received far more attention than we've ever received before, first of all. There have been a lot of candidate visits and a lot of campaigning.
But I think what you point out is a problem caused by the compression of the schedule. It's very, very difficult for the candidates, from their perspective, to try to campaign in 10 states this week, between the seven on Tuesday and the three over the weekend. Even for a well-financed campaign with a large staff that would be very, very difficult.
|Questions of technological security|
TERENCE SMITH: Have you had, to your knowledge, instances of fraud
or deception in the Internet voting?
MARK BREWER: Not that we're aware of. Not that we're aware of. We have
very strong security procedures in place. There have been people who've
applied for duplicate ballots. I don't think they did it out of malice;
I think they did it perhaps because they were impatient to get their
ballot and they hadn't arrived in the mail yet. But we're not aware
of any intentional wrongdoing so far.
TERENCE SMITH: Have you had technical glitches?
MARK BREWER: Not really. You know, systemic problems. We have a 1-800 number that is set up and is available on the Web site. When people vote, it's also on their ballots. So if people have some problems when they get to the voting Web site, they can call that 1-800 number.
There are a few things that are peculiar to accessing the site that
have caused people some problems, but those are security devices, in
terms of how you enter the site and so forth.
TERENCE SMITH: Is the computer counting these votes as the come in?
Does the computer already know who's winning?
MARK BREWER: No, it does not. There will not be a tally done until
Saturday afternoon after 4 o'clock, when the caucus sites and the vote-by-Internet
process closes down.
TERENCE SMITH: So you can't go to your computer and tell me who's ahead?
MARK BREWER: Not at all. I don't even know where the servers are located for this process. That's part of the security procedures.
TERENCE SMITH: Given your experience so far, is this the wave of the
MARK BREWER: I don't know. But I think what I would like to see and
what we would like to see if this is successful is further pilot programs
in the public sector -- you know, maybe a municipal election or a statewide
ballot question and so forth, and take it another step further to see
if it's appropriate. Again, it has certainly worked well so far here
for us in this caucus system.
TERENCE SMITH: Have you heard from other Democratic state chairmen
that might be interested in this experiment?
MARK BREWER: Yes. There have been a number of others. They contacted
me too late in this process this year to go ahead with it, but there
has been a lot of interest. And I appreciate also the support of the
DNC. The DNC has been very supportive of our effort in this regard.
TERENCE SMITH: So people are watching this.
MARK BREWER: They are very much watching, not only around the country
but we've also received some phone calls from overseas because of all
the attention this has received.
TERENCE SMITH: How would you define success in this exercise?
MARK BREWER: Well, first of all, a secure result that people trust; turnout, which has already exceeded our previous records and our expectations.
Those would be the two things, security and turnout.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, there have been criticism and a report recently
that question the safety and security of the Defense Department's experimental
program to try to do this with U.S. forces stationed overseas. Any of
those concerns apply here in Michigan?
MARK BREWER: Well, certainly we took those kinds of concerns into account. I ought to point out that that Pentagon report was a minority report of the security consultants who were hired to review the Pentagon's system.
One of the signatories on that report testified to the DNC in opposition
to our proposal, and, and her concerns were taken into account when
we designed this system.
That being said, there is no guarantee of any election system. Any
election system has vulnerabilities, and all you can do is install,
as we have done, state-of-the-art security safeguards to do the best
you can to protect it.
TERENCE SMITH: Yeah, I mean, I would assume that given the proliferation
of worms and viruses -- that some Internet-savvy hacker could get into
your system and manipulate the vote.
MARK BREWER: Well, again, that's the goal of the security precautions that we've taken, is to prevent that.
But I can point out, for example, here in Michigan, where we have paper
ballots which are voted absentee, there's nothing to stop one person
in a household from intercepting somebody else's paper ballot, voting
it, and forging a signature on it. That's a risk we've grown accustomed
to over the course of time. I think the issue here is that there are
risks, but they're risks we're not used to yet, as we are with the risks
that are associated with other types of voting systems.
TERENCE SMITH: And any fearless forecast as to the outcome?
MARK BREWER: No fearless forecast. Because I'm administering this whole
process, I'm neutral in the entire process. I would be very happy if
the process is not the story on Saturday night and the story is whoever
wins and what that means in terms of electing a Democratic president
in the fall.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Now, I do see that Senator John Kerry is ahead
in most of the polls in the state and has received the endorsement of
MARK BREWER: Well, certainly the governor's endorsement can be very
helpful. But polls in a caucus state can be notoriously unreliable.
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hm.
MARK BREWER: And we'll wait to see what the voters have to say on Saturday
as they vote by mail, by Internet, and at a caucus site.
TERENCE SMITH: So stay tuned.
MARK BREWER: Stay tuned.
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