What About Chad?

Americans are generally willing to try new technologies for voting, and the type they’re most comfortable trying is as familiar as their bank ATM, according to a survey by Gartner Group, Inc.

The indecision following the November 2000 presidential election prompted calls for electoral reform, including more modern voting technology. While there has been much attention on Internet voting, Gartner’s nationwide survey of registered voters showed voters are willing to vote using a more familiar electronic technology.

Fifty percent of those surveyed said they would be very willing to go to a polling place and cast their vote using a touch screen, similar to a bank ATM. Twelve percent of the respondents said they were not at all willing to use such technology (called direct registered electronic voting).

“This finding speaks to familiarity,” said Laura Behrens, industry analyst for Gartner’s e-Business Services group. “ATMs and similar touch screens are everywhere, and there is little or no price barrier to using them — I don’t have to install an ATM in my home to gain access to my bank. When access to the Internet becomes as widespread and inexpensive as ATMs are, we should expect to see greater confidence in using the Internet for voting and related activities.”

About one-third of those surveyed said they would be very willing to use email or the Internet to register to vote (34 percent), to request an absentee ballot (32 percent), or to cast their vote on election day (33 percent). Slightly fewer (28 percent) said they would be willing to return an absentee ballot via email or the Internet. But proportions ranging from 27 percent to 32 percent said they would not be at all willing to use email or the Internet for these election-related activities.

“The major difference between these groups is their experience with the Internet,” Behrens said. “Heavy Web users are much more willing to engage in e-voting. In fact, people who report being on the Internet at least five days a week are three times as willing to try e-voting as are people who are on only one or two days a week.”

No more than 2 percent of respondents had used email or the Internet for any voting-related activity mentioned in the study, but that proportion is likely to grow in future elections. Elections-related Web sites report more than a million persons registered to vote or requested absentee ballots before the November 2000 election.

The sentiment for e-voting is not unanimous. Even among heavy Internet users, 18 percent are not willing to use the Internet to register or to vote. That proportion rises to 52 percent among people who don’t use the Internet at all, who still constitute one-third of respondents in this study.

Hundreds of county election offices will be forced to adopt new voting technologies in the next decade, according to Gartner. Many now use aged mechanical lever systems than can no longer be maintained or repaired. Similar numbers of election offices can be expected to respond to the specter of hanging chads [definition] and move to replace their existing punch card systems. Of Gartner survey respondents who voted in November 2000, 57 percent reported using one of these two systems to cast their ballot.

“These findings should alert governments to the need for significant voter education as they adopt new voting technologies,” said Behrens. “Even if state and county governments find the money and technical wherewithal to modernize voting systems, the effort will be squandered if voters don’t trust the systems enough to use them. The implications for voter turnout and public policy demand a well-planned and well-executed strategy for rollout of new systems.”

Gartner’s findings are from a nationwide telephone survey of 1,005 registered voters, conducted between November 30 and December 5, 2000.

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