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Debate Over CA Online Voting Bill Weighs Accessibility Against Security

by Jane Susskind, published

Independent voters now account for approximately 40 percent of all voters in the United States. Following the national trend, California voters are increasingly leaving the two major parties, with almost 3.7 million voters now registered under "No Party Preference" in the state.

Overall voter turnout, however, decreased in 2012 election, with one million fewer Californians casting a ballot in the general election than in previous presidential elections. With independent voters now accounting for 21 percent of the electorate in California, how can the state ensure their voices are heard in Sacramento?

Assemblymember Philip Ting proposes exploring online voting with Assembly Bill 19, or the "Internet Voting Pilot Program."

Passed on April 23 by the California Assembly Elections Committee, AB 19 proposes to change the legal definition of "voting system" to include the use of systems connected to the Internet in future California elections. This would authorize the creation of an Internet Voting Pilot Program, under which counties could offer voters the choice to vote online.

There have already been attempts to modernize the election process in California. The 2012 elections were the first to include online voter registration. Increasing overall registration by almost 800,000 voters, 32 percent of those utilizing the Internet to register to vote were independent voters.

If online voter registration is any indication of online voting behavior, AB 19 could increase turnout among independents in California. In a state governed by a Democratic supermajority, striving towards a more representative government is a good thing.

Citing successful programs in West Virginia and Colorado, Assemblymember Ting believes that providing online voting as a supplemental method on Election Day will successfully increase access to the democratic process in California.

"In a state as diverse as California, it would allow for ballots to be seamlessly translated into any language, improving access for all citizens," he wrote in the purpose of the bill

If passed, the California online voting bill will be the first of its kind in California, signaling a revolutionary shift in the way California elections are run.

However, not all revolutions are good, Phillip Ung, from California Common Cause, said in a phone interview. He highlighted the threat online hacking would have on the integrity of elections:

"We do not believe that our elections and the integrity of our elections should be under that kind of threat by adopting a system that, for the most part, is untested. Even if it's a pilot, it still counts real votes; it's a real election."

California Common Cause instead advocated for online voter registration and Election Day registration in California -- both measures passed last year in California.

"We simply are not ready to make the jump into AB 19 as it's written," Ung added, a sentiment echoed by the California Internet Voting Task Force. In a 2000 report, the task force concluded that "the election process would be best served by a strategy of evolutionary rather than revolutionary change." This suggests that a phase-in process would be necessary to ensure no errors become integrated into the system.

In the world of technology, however, a 2000 report is considerably outdated, with some of the recommendations already realized. California Common Cause calls for a modern task force to re-evaluate the technological threats and legal implications associated with online voting.

We trust the Internet with our credit card information, social security numbers, and medical information. Can we trust the Internet with our democratic process?

Editor's Note: Assemblymember Ting was reached for comment on the impact AB 19 will have on California elections. His office has not responded.

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