What's at stake this Election Day is more than which candidate will lead the United States for the next four years. This year's election results may also help determine when -- if at all -- the American voting process will go completely high-tech.
After the election debacle four years ago, hundreds of local counties across the country have replaced older balloting equipment with new touch-screen computers that record votes electronically. By some estimates, nearly 29 percent of all votes in today's presidential election will be cast using these new electronic systems.
But will such paperless balloting systems become widespread or even help launch the next technology leap -- voting via the Internet? That all depends on how well the new electronic systems hold up to concerns brought up by critics.
Computer scientists tracking the e-voting movement say that the machines have already caused some difficulties in precincts where voters were allowed to cast their electronic ballots prior to Election Day.
"We're hearing reports of people not being able to vote [in certain local races] ... of [electronic voting] machines showing things other than what [voters] selected, or not showing the complete ballot," said David Dill, a computer scientist at Stanford University in California and founder of VerifiedVoting.org, a nonprofit foundation that tracks problems related to electronic voting.
The Problem With PCs
Dill acknowledges the number of reports "aren't many statistically" now. But he and others note that these early problems in electronic balloting systems help point out how difficult it would be to create a totally electronic and Net-based voting system.
One of the primary concerns over computerized and online voting systems would be reliability. With millions of lines of programming code, software that records and tabulates ballots could be vulnerable to some unseen flaw not anticipated by its creators.
"Computers crash all the time," said Avi Rubin, a computer scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "And it's very hard to build a system that is and can be trusted by users."
Last year, the Pentagon proposed trying to build and test an online voting system called the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment. SERVE was supposed to allow military members serving overseas the capability to cast this year's ballots over the Internet.
But after a review by Rubin and three other computer scientists, SERVE was shelved. The main reason: Since the system relied upon the Internet and PCs, it was still vulnerable to hackers and other common Net risks.
"Internet voting is susceptible to worms and phishing -- where you can be redirected to a Web site where the voting is done [fraudulently] on your behalf," said Rubin.
In other words, SERVE was "secure" in name only. "And that's a deal breaker," said Rubin.
Putting Heads Together
There are also concerns about voters who don't have access to the Internet or don't know how to use it. Rubin said such "digital divide" issues would be much easier to address than the technical hurdles to ensuring privacy, security and reliable.
Still, some proponents of online voting say using the Internet for general elections isn't impossible or improbable. Many supporters point out that stock holders and investment firms have been regularly using the Internet as a means to cast and collect proxy votes on company issues, such as selecting members of a company's board.
And supporters say security issues can be addressed and solved -- eventually -- much in the way the industry continues to work to secure online banking and other financial transactions.
Critics such as Dill, however, says such arguments aren't persuasive.
"That is just plain wrong," said Dill. "With Net banking, there is phishing and a certain amount of fraud. That becomes part of the cost of doing business [online]. We don't have that option with voting."
How technologically advanced the U.S. voting system will become is still largely up in the air. But all the attention on current electronic voting systems will certainly help, says Dill.
"There is a steep learning curve when it comes to the electronic election process and more and more people are climbing it," said Dill. "You have people with a technical background, people that know the process, know the law ... and there's discussion now."