This document was prepared by Lorrie Faith Cranor as an entry in the Encyclopedia of Computers and Computer History edited by Raul Rojas. It will be published by Fitzroy Dearborn in 2001.

Electronic Voting

Electronic voting refers to the use of computers or computerized voting equipment to cast ballots in an election. Sometimes this term is used more specifically to refer to voting that takes place over the Internet. Electronic systems can be used to register voters, tally ballots, and record votes.

Machine-readable ballot systems, in use since 1964, require voters to mark their votes on a paper card with a pencil or marker, or remove divots from a perforated card with a stylus or mechanical hole puncher. The ballot cards may be taken to a centralized computer center to be scanned and tallied, or they may be scanned and tallied at each polling place.

Direct-recording electronic voting machines (DRE) require voters to use a keyboard, touch screen, or pointer to mark their ballot on a computer terminal. The votes are immediately added to a running tally. The original DRE machines were simply electronic implementations of the traditional mechanical lever machines. Some more recent DRE models look more like automated teller machines or personal computers and have the ability to display photographs as well as text.

During the 1990s, some non-governmental organizations began conducting elections using personal computers connected to the Internet or private networks. Because of the widespread availability of computers on university campuses, many universities found this to be a convenient way for students to elect student government representatives. Some professional societies began using Internet voting to elect their officers, and some corporations began offering Internet voting as an option for shareholders to cast proxy votes.

In August 1996, the Reform Party became the first US political party to use Internet voting (along with telephone and postal mail voting) to select a Presidential candidate. Over 2000 voters voted via the Internet. In January 2000, 35 voters cast their ballots over the Internet in the Alaska Republican party's Presidential straw poll. The first large-scale binding governmental election to be conducted online was the 2000 Arizona Democratic primary, in which 39,942 voters cast their votes over the Internet. No security problems were reported; however, the system proved unusable for a large numbers of voters, including many Macintosh computer users and visually impaired voters who rely on screen-reading software.

Internet voting may be conducted in a variety of ways. Some Internet voting systems simply transfer ballots from local precincts to centralized tallying centers. Other systems allow voters to vote from any computer connected to the Internet. Such Internet vote-from-home systems may be used in place of polling place voting, or they might be used only for absentee balloting. Internet vote-from-home systems are appealing in that they can eliminate the expenses associated with setting up and staffing polling places, make voting more convenient for voters who have computers at home or work, and eliminate the need for separate absentee ballot systems. Encryption technology can be used to help ensure that votes cast over the Internet remain secure and private. Internet vote-from-home systems, however, raise many of the concerns associated with absentee balloting and vote-by-mail systems, including concerns about people being influenced or forced to vote a certain way and concerns about people selling their right to vote. Critics have also questioned whether Internet voting systems might serve to further disenfranchise minority communities that tend to have little or no Internet access. And questions remain about the security of Internet voting systems and the feasibility of verifying that they perform properly.

Electronic voting -- and especially Internet voting -- has the potential to reduce the costs associated with running elections and increase participation in elections. It may also make voting more accessible to people with disabilities, allowing them to vote from home and use equipment that can accommodate their special needs. However, ensuring the security and integrity of online elections poses many new challenges for election administrators.


California Internet Voting Taskforce. "A Report on the Feasibility of Internet Voting." January, 2000.

Lorrie Faith Cranor. "Electronic Voting." Crossroads 2.4 April 1996.

Derek Dictson and Dan Ray, "The Modern Democratic Revolution: An Objective Survey of Internet-based Elections." January 18, 2000,

Lance J. Hoffman. "Internet voting: will it spur or corrupt democracy?" Proceedings of the tenth conference on Computers, freedom privacy: challenging the assumptions, 2000, Pages 219 - 223.

Deborah Phillips, "Are We Ready for Internet Voting?"

R. G. Saltman, Accuracy, Integrity, and Security in Computerised Vote-Tallying (Washington: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1998).

-- Lorrie Faith Cranor