One day, you might vote at an ATM
By Election Day 2004, you may be
able to drop by a cash machine for some pocket money and cast your
vote for president at the same time.
Fantasy? Maybe not.
As unlikely as it seems, the humble automated
teller might prove to be an attractive alternative to hanging chads,
butterfly ballots and the sundry other technological snafus of the
2000 presidential election.
Just two weeks after the election, Cash Technologies
Inc., an e-commerce systems developer, announced it had added a
voting application to its transaction processing system that would
enable balloting at ATMs, point-of-sale terminals and Web sites.
The voting system supports a variety of security protocols, including
PINs, passwords, digital signatures and voting certificates, as
well as such next-generation safeguards as fingerprint, iris and
hand geometry scans.
Few doubt that the capability is there. The
nation's quarter-million ATMs are already wired to electronic funds
transfer (EFT) networks, their screen displays could be easily adapted
for balloting purposes, and they are more secure and less vulnerable
to fraud and sabotage than the telephone or the Internet. Unlike
current creaky voting contraptions, cash machines are ubiquitous,
dependable workhorses that are used and trusted by millions of Americans
'A very secure way to
"As a technology, obviously an ATM machine could make sense," according
to Johann Dreyer, executive chairman of Mosaic Software, an electronic
funds transfer developer in Deerfield Beach, Fla. "It has the capability
to present the user something on the screen that allows them to
cast their ballot in a touch-sensitive way in a secure environment.
You could get a voter to register, give them a unique PIN number
tied to their Social Security number, and that would be a very secure
way to go about it."
Granted, there would be obstacles. Linking hundreds
of ATM networks with widely varied technologies to serve as electronic
ballot boxes once or twice a year would require a significant investment
of time and capital. So, too, developing the protocols to enable
federal, state and local balloting by ATM location also would be
a challenge. And someone would have to strike a deal with ATM owners
-- specifically banks and independent sales organizations -- to
make it worth their while to configure their machines.
But when measured against the steep hardware
cost to buy new, dedicated machines and the development cost to
establish a national electronic voting infrastructure from the ground
up, the real question might be, if not ATMs, then what?
Building a better ballot
Since the showdown in Florida, at least half a dozen voting-reform
bills have been introduced in Congress to overhaul, update and streamline
the way we choose our political leaders. Most take particular aim
at the antiquated punch card and lever voting methods that have
been in use (or misuse) for generations.
"We vote as if we still live in the 19th century,"
says Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., author of the bipartisan Voting
Study and Improvement Act of 2000. It calls for $10 million to explore
alternative voting methods, including vote by mail, vote by Internet
and computerized voting machines.
Clearly, a change is imminent. In all likelihood,
you have yanked your last lever and punched your last punch card
-- baseball and basketball all-star balloting aside, of course.
So how will we vote for president in 2004?
Ann All, editor of the trade publication ATM
Marketplace, thinks ATMs could be a serious contender.
"Over time, the existing ATM infrastructure
has proven to be rock solid as far as security is concerned," she
says. "Right now, you're making financial transactions on it. Granted,
your vote is important, but if you're willing to actually make electronic
transactions with your money, I would think you would feel comfortable
placing your vote on that same system."
Automatic for the people
What's more, ATM voting is not that farfetched.
In October, Brazil held its first fully automated
nationwide election at 326,000 ATM-like kiosks covering an area
larger than the United States. Some locations deep within the Amazonian
jungle even lacked reliable electricity; terminals running on 12-hour
batteries did the trick there.
The voting terminals, about the size of a toaster,
display a photo of each candidate the voter selects. The voter presses
a green button to confirm the vote, an orange button to amend it
or a white button to abstain (voting is required by law in Brazil).
The visual cues are especially important in a country where one-fifth
of the population is illiterate.
Was there still political corruption in the
former dictatorship? Sure.
But nobody questioned the accuracy of the count.
Diebold Inc., the leading U.S. manufacturer
of ATMs, acquired the Brazilian company that built the voting machines
in late 1999. Weeks later, the Brazilian elections tribunal awarded
the company the largest order in Diebold's history, a $106 million
contract for 186,800 additional voting terminals. That's $567 for
Following the Bush-Gore photo finish, Diebold
quickly hustled a few of its voting toasters to Palm Beach County
to capitalize on the unexpected North American marketing opportunity.
Not enough safety in
America is far from the Amazonian jungle, of course. Here, we do
not have mandatory voting; indeed, barely half our populace bothers
to cast a ballot. Whatever form voting takes next, there is little
doubt that our elected officials intend to make it easier, not harder,
Which makes another potential electronic voting
solution -- the Internet -- a real dilemma. Still not fully trusted
for secure transactions such as banking or shopping, beset by intermittent
hacker attacks, plagued by its own enormous potential, the Internet
is at once an obvious answer to an electronic national referendum
-- and the least likely solution. How to guarantee one person, one
vote over the 'Net is still anybody's guess.
Compared to the Internet, Dreyer thinks the
public would prefer voting at the ATM.
"I'm fairly convinced of that," he says. "Internet
voting would by far be the most convenient. People do their taxes
over the Internet and nobody worries about that. But voting over
the Internet is a psychological issue. Nobody is going to try to
do your taxes on your behalf."
Jay MacDonald is a contributing
editor based in Florida