Just over a week ago, almost half the Arizona Democrats voting in their state's presidential primary skipped the voting booth and clicked on their candidate of choice. These were historic mouse clicks; it was the first time Americans have been able to vote online in an official election.
The nearly 39,943 online votes (of a total of 85,970) relied on the technology of Election.com, a Garden City, N.Y., firm that set up the online polls and worked to ensure that there was no virtual ballot-box stuffing, no ballots cast by the dead, no denial-of-service attacks. A for-profit company, Election.com was started in February 1999 (it was called Votation then) to run online elections for private companies as well as the government.
CEO Joe Mohen, 43, previously founded a networking software company called Proginet. But in his spare time, he did a lot of civic volunteering and organized elections for the school board, the village mayor and other local offices -- doing everything from finding polling places to renting machines. He says all that election grunt work "wasn't my passion," so he created a smoother system with Election.com, hoping to spare others the headaches.
How do you make sure that online voting is free from fraud?
We had multiple outside firms that audited our processes, and more security than any other Internet event in the history of the world. Now, I can't say that definitively, but we put so many resources into it. And you can imagine, with the tens of thousands of people who voted, and with all the publicity there was on this election, any security glitch would have been known worldwide in a minute. Yes, people did try to hack into our systems, but none of them got through.
What kind of encryption do you use to make sure that votes can't get hacked?
We have our own proprietary type of encryption, which we call cascading encryption; it has several layers of encryption and supercedes what's in existing browsers. There's no plug-in, but you have to be using a current browser for it to work.
How can you make it easier for people to vote?
Going forward, we need to do a better job of educating voters -- we fielded a lot of questions about old browsers. And we also need to do a better job making it easier for users who have never used computers before. We had the president of the Navajo nation vote, it was his first time.
For those of us who have only punched paper ballots, can you walk us through the online voting process?
You go to our site, choose the election and then enter your credentials. In the case of the Arizona Democratic primary, they previously sent each voter a PIN number in the mail. So you had to enter that, as well as identify other info about yourself. And then you vote.
There doesn't have to be a physical mailing as part of the process -- you could use e-mail, or have to go to the county recorder to get your number. Every election is different. Say you have an uncontested election for a not-for-profit organization -- the level of security would be different, and it could be cheaper to run. There are situations right now where elections aren't held because it's too expensive. For example, you have caucuses instead of primaries; in Iowa people get together and decide who they want by yelling at each other across the room, primarily to save money. But if you bring down the price, more people would hold elections.
How much more efficient is it to hold an online election?
Most private sector organizations spend 12 percent of their budget on expenses related to an election. We can save them half of that. And we do it better -- we don't have to cut down half a rain forest to mail out the ballots, we're saving natural resources. This is a big plus for some of our customers. We're handling the upcoming Sierra Club election.
But won't online elections be skewed and tend to represent rich people who own computers and fewer poor people?
That's a very significant issue, we're doing studies right now on that. It turns out that there's a big difference between owning a computer and having access to a computer. Many people voted from a friend's house, borrowed their neighbor's computer, went to a church or a Kinko's.
Many people who are not voting now are poor people. They're people who are working two jobs, they're working mothers, they're in the military, they're in situations where it can be really difficult to get to a polling place. There's a big voting divide today; we think online voting will help close it.
My last name means "laborer" in Gaelic -- well, actually it means "he who has no skill whatsoever." We can get the vote out to the organized labor voter. We can work with unions to put computers in union halls.
Almost any American can register to vote online, too, on our Web site. Instead of having 3,000 counties and 47 different types of instructions, [we have one place] where you can go to register. You can't register for North Dakota because there is no voter registration there, and there are three states we haven't gotten to yet, but we have 46 out of the 50 states.
What were the voting patterns of online users like?
Seventy-five percent of young people -- the 18 to 24 demographic -- voted online. But the overall voting was scattered across all age groups. And note that the only people who could vote online were people who had already registered beforehand, so a lot of people weren't allowed to vote online even though they wanted to. There just wasn't enough time before the election to allow them to register and vote online. It was very popular, we blew out the turnouts from other years.