Michigan voters try an online ballot box

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"We wanted to encourage as many people as possible to take advantage of it," said Bob Allison, the service union's Michigan communications director. "Our effort was aimed at making sure working families have their voices heard in this election."

Garrett said his union used laptops to sign up thousands of members statewide for Internet voting. The union then sent staffers out with laptop computers to allow people to vote, and set up gatherings - like the one Barnett attended this week - where they could log on and weigh in.

Donna Asberry, 62, a clerk at the Detroit Medical Center, took a free moment Monday to cast her online ballot.

"I was at work," she said, "but it was during a slow time, and I'm on the computer all day long anyway."

Unlike the government workers union, the service workers union decided that, out of concern for members' privacy, it would be inappropriate to set up Internet voting centers and expect members to cast online ballots in the presence of union officials and co-workers.

Kerry's campaign, unlike Dean's, shied away from using lists of registered Web voters to contact voters and encourage them to vote.

Party officials said they were careful to make the voting system as secure as possible. To be eligible for online balloting, voters had to register in January with the state Democratic Party. The party returned a form listing a user name and password, as well as the Web address of a secure site where they could vote from anywhere at any time before the end of the election.

The party listed locations where Internet voters could find free Web access, including public libraries all over the state.

Arizona was the first state to try Internet voting in 2000, when it was credited with shattering turnout records in a relatively predictable contest between Bill Bradley and Al Gore, who was already well on his way to winning the nomination.

Some Michiganders say they hope their online experiment will get more voters involved in choosing a president.

One voter, Dan Myslakowski, used his online vote as a civics lesson, casting it this week in front of a classroom full of government students at Lake Orion High School who watched on an overhead projector.

"It will increase awareness and education," said Myslakowski, 52, an IT manager from Lake Orion, a Detroit suburb. "You always want to have some new technology and some new way to do things to excite people."

Myslakowski voted for Kerry, because, he said, he agrees with Granholm, who has endorsed the senator, "that he is most likely the best candidate to beat George W. Bush in November."

Keeping watch over the five laptops set up in the Detroit union auditorium, Carolyn Clark, who was awaiting the arrival of her online ballot log-in and password, says the new technology is the perfect way to get more people enlisted in the cause of defeating Bush.

"I'm going to vote right away when I get it, and then I'm going to take my laptop and go out and help some other people vote," she said. "It's so important to put Bush out."

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