Thousands of people serving in the military and American civilians living abroad will have that option next year in the nation's most extensive Internet voting experiment, viewed by some as a step toward elections in cyberspace.
The Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment, which began as a tiny demonstration project in the 2000 general election that involved just 84 voters, could give 100,000 voters the chance to cast absentee ballots online in next year's presidential primaries and general election.
The Pentagon-run program will be limited to eligible voters whose homes in the United States are in South Carolina and Hawaii or in a handful of counties in Arkansas, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington.
"Internet voting takes just seconds instead of weeks if you were to put that ballot in the mail and send it off," said Polli Brunelli, director of the Pentagon's Federal Voting Assistance Program. "What we're trying to do is make sure that we have an alternative out there for those people who are unable to vote by mail."
If it proves successful, the $22 million program could be expanded to serve more than 6 million voters in the armed forces living here and abroad, their dependents and nonmilitary U.S. citizens residing overseas.
Voters using SERVE can register to vote and cast their ballots from any computer using Microsoft Windows with Internet access. Local election officials will use the system to process voter registration applications, send ballots to voters and accept voted ballots instantly. Long delays in counting absentee ballots, a factor in the disputed 2000 presidential election, would be relegated to the past.
Security remains the top concern for the system's coordinators and fodder for critics.
"I think Internet voting is a good idea for this population if you can assure security, but I'm not confident that they can do that," said John Dunbar, a project manager at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. "It wouldn't take much for some smart hacker to send around a virus that lays in wait for someone to issue a vote."
Other computer security experts call the project an open invitation to election tampering.
"We're opening up a whole host of opportunities for voter coercion and voter fraud," said Rebecca Mercuri, a research fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who specializes in studying electronic vote tabulation.
Mercuri said even the most secure systems can be cracked, hacked or left vulnerable to Internet viruses, leaving the ballot contents and the voter's identity open to perusal.
"If we have this going on in commerce and all other transactions on the Internet, why would people think we can avoid it in voting?" she said. "This is just an experiment that's doomed."
Brunelli said her office is taking unprecedented security measures to ensure system integrity, including intrusion detection systems, redundant firewalls and penetration tests by friendly hackers.
A team of the nation's top computer security experts has identified possible threats and measures to guard against them. Sophisticated encryption technology will scramble messages containing the ballots, and voter identity will be verified through digital signature, a prearranged procedure to authenticate the voter's signature.
"With this population, we have made the casting of the Internet ballot as safe, if not safer, than with the mail in ballots," Brunelli said. "If we reach a point where things are vulnerable, and we can't guard against that, we won't go forward."
In Washington state, where seven counties participate in the Pentagon program, Secretary of State Sam Reed sees the effort as a way to create a better-informed electorate. He expects the entire state to begin full online voting within 10 years.
Kay Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, said she welcomes the idea of Internet voting if it increases turnout.
"Anything making it easier for people to vote and participate is something we support as long as security is addressed," she said. "A lot of us harken back and like the idea of going to the precinct, but times do change. We need to do things differently, we need to keep up.