Voting via VoIP�Coming soon to a polling place near you

The technology is in place and has been used elsewhere on the globe. Adoption in the U.S. will likely be gradual.

By Adam Stone | Posted Oct 31, 2008
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We'll be pulling the lever on Tuesday—or touching the screen, or making our mark, but we won't be phoning it in.

At least not yet.

The thinkers at San Diego-based Everyone Counts are betting they can get voters to register their preference by VoIP within the next few years. Their Web-based technology won't just make life easier, they say. It will change the course of elections.

When Australian military personnel voted in a recent federal election, 22 percent sent their votes in by mail. When they voted by phone using Everyone Counts, participation rose to 75 percent, according to Lori J. Steele, CEO of Everyone Counts.

Consider that there are some 6 million U.S. voters overseas, less than 5 percent of whom have their votes counted in a typical election. A commensurate rise in participation could mean a difference of almost a million votes.

To utilize the technology, a voter dials in and uses touch or voice to enter authenticating information, typically some combination of ballot code, PIN, date of birth, Social Security number or driver's license number. Then the ballot is cast by touch or voice.

Which form of ID will vary with local law. "It depends on the county and city and the state. We just have to tailor it to the laws of the jurisdiction," Steele said.

VoIP allows the ballot to be encrypted using established Internet encryption protocols.

Everyone Counts is not alone in experimenting with telephonic voting. IVS of Louisville, Ky. for example proffers a paper ballot marking system in which voters make their choices using a touch-tone telephone located at the polling site.

Everyone Counts, however, claims to be the only Internet-based effort. Its product has been road tested in the United Kingdom, where the British Labour Party has been using it in party elections since 2000. The tool has featured in certain local U.K. elections since 2007. Labor unions, credit unions, homeowner associations in Australia, Canada and elsewhere also are using it.

Pricing is meant to help users phase into the product. For an upfront project fee, Everyone Counts will build and run the first election. In year two the buyer takes over with the vendor's help, and beginning in year three the buyer flies solo with an annual license. Steele says the cost works out to be about half the cost of paper ballots.

The company may have an uphill climb, since its target market is government entities, which never are an easy sell. But Everyone Counts has an inside edge in the person of COO Paul DeGregorio, former chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a national body charged with overseeing a broad range of electoral processes.

"He knows everyone from the federal level in most countries to the local election level in America, so we have a clear understanding of who is aggressively trying to serve the voters and whose laws allow for the implementation of things that are electronic, that are not being currently used," Steele said.

Steele anticipates the adoption of this new voting technology will nonetheless take time.

"We believe that the first place where it will be strongly implemented is for overseas voters. Of those who live or serve abroad in the military—who tried to vote in 2006—70 percent were not counted, and that is typical because it is much too slow to get ballots back and forth overseas to be counted," she said.

After that, municipalities will look at implementing the technology at polling places, to assist those with disabilities who may have trouble accessing conventional voting mechanisms.

Only then will attention turn the convenience factor, those who just don't feel like getting out of the La-Z-Boy on Tuesday evening.

It will take time.

"You can't go to a government and say, 'change everything now,' because they panic," Steele said. "But if you show them how it works in situations where they need it badly, then that familiarity drives solutions in other settings."

Still, the public has shown itself wary of any digital incursions into the Old Ways of voting. It's a point that irks Steele slightly. "People are perfectly happy to hand their ballot over to an 80-year-old woman who puts it in a cardboard box and puts it in the trunk of her car," she fumed. "That can be hacked just by going to Kinkos!"

Still, she says, VoIP's time will come. A generational shift is coming, people are more accustomed to existing in the ether. "Paper will phase itself out ever time," she said.

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