November 8, 2000 12:45 PM PST

Online absentee voting heats up Florida recount

As the nation waits for the ballot recount in Florida to decide its next president, the state will also be known as one of a few select areas where overseas residents for the first time used the Internet to vote.

The presidential race Want election news? Get it herebetween Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore has come down to the Sunshine State to determine the winner. Under state law, Florida must recount its votes because the popular vote between the two candidates differs by less than one-half of 1 percent. As of 3 a.m. PST, Bush led Gore by a mere 1,784 votes out of the nearly 6 million total votes cast.

While most of the nation is focusing on the 67 counties in Florida to recount their votes by the close of business Thursday, a precedent was quietly set in two counties in the state. Okaloosa County and Orange County were two areas where the Department of Defense tested online voting under the Federal Voter Assistance Program for residents living abroad.

The number of online votes is small. About 50 out of a selected 100 were received by the election offices in the two counties, many of whose residents are military personnel stationed abroad. But in a race as close as this, the old cliché that every vote counts rings especially true.

More importantly, it's the first time that the Internet was used to vote for a president. And the feedback from one supervisor of elections was glowing.

"I long for the day when we can do this" across the board, said Pat Hollarn, supervisor of elections for Okaloosa County.

The region could be an especially appropriate springboard for online absentee voting because of its pervasive military presence. The county is home to Eglin Air Force Base, an Army Ranger camp, a Coast Guard station and a Navy ordinance school. For military personnel who have made their homes in the region, voting online would be the easiest way to get votes from those stationed abroad or shipped away on tour.

Hollarn said the Internet could solve the often difficult problem of getting absentee ballots into the hands of overseas voters.

"If we had online voting for the military, they all could've gotten a ballot," she said.

Other areas tested included Weber County, Utah; Dallas County, Texas; and the state of South Carolina. Arizona also took a stab at online voting in March during the Democratic primaries. However, the process was hampered by year 2000-related computer glitches.

The Orange County supervisor of elections was not available for comment because of his involvement in the recount process.

Although the limited test was called a success, there are still many issues surrounding the process that need to be worked out before it can be launched on a broader scale.

First and foremost is security and encryption. In this year's election, online voters largely sent in their selections through the Department of Defense's secure networks. The election office then decrypted and downloaded the forms, which are counted with other standard absentee ballots.

Putting online voting into the mainstream requires a considerable boost in encryption and security technology, Hollarn said.

Hollarn would not comment on the tally for Okaloosa's online voters. But for a military town on the western shore of Florida, "This is heavy Republican county," she said.

 

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