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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 daily.

'A very secure way to go'
"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."

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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 box
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 each terminal.

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 the 'Net
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, to participate.

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

-- Posted: Dec. 12, 2000

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See Also
New ATMs put movies where your money is (7/18/00)
Feds want ATMs to talk to blind users (3/20/00)
Coming to a street corner near you -- Super ATMs (11/9/99)
Happy birthday, ATM! (7/5/99)
ATMs poised to do more than dispense cash (3/2/98)

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