The idea may sound clean and simple, but it is just as controversial as a dimpled chad: Let U.S. citizens vote at bank branches, using automated teller machines.
Proposals for electronic voting have been floated on and off for years, but they have gained more attention this year because of the fracas over butterfly ballots and other electoral anachronisms.
Advocates of ATM voting say it would minimize ambiguities and maximize convenience. But detractors make convincing arguments that voting by ATM would sacrifice privacy, unfairly favor people who live in neighborhoods with more ATMs, and prove burdensome to the companies - namely, banks - that own and operate the machines.
It is hard to track who first started talking about electronic voting this year - after all, so many pundits were yakking on so many networks. But an opinion piece that ran in The Wall Street Journal on Nov. 8 made a forceful case, not that people should vote at banks, but that counties should buy ATM-type devices to replace existing systems.
The article, which ran the day after the election, had to have been written and planned for publication long before chads and dimples hit the national vocabulary. The author, a business writer named John Steele Gordon, argued that a voter should "be able to walk into any convenient polling place, insert his credit-card-like registration card and his PIN number, answer a series of questions on a screen ('Please vote for one of the following candidates for President'), review his choices, and press a button to register his votes."
Under this system, Mr. Gordon wrote, the votes "would be transmitted instantly to the central computer and at the close of polling, results would be instantly known."
A San Francisco company that makes software for ATM networks seized on Mr. Gordon's suggestion and issued a press release saying that people should vote by ATM at banks. The company, iATMglobal.net, runs a network that lets ATM owners offer advanced functions to their customers. Daniel Cohen, the chairman of the board at iATM, said that because people trust ATMs and feel comfortable using them, "there's no reason to believe we shouldn't trust our voting transactions" to ATMs as well.
He said it would be much cheaper to use the nation's 300,000 ATMs for polling than to upgrade our quaint system of paper ballots and mechanical machines. One hitch, of course would be that banks and other ATM owners would have to go along with the idea, which would surely mean that they would have to close their branches for at least a day.
iATM has approached a number of counties, including Philadelphia County, and said that some have expressed interest.
Robert Lee, the voter registration administrator for Philadelphia County, was apparently not among them. "ATM machines are located in areas for economic purposes," he said. "Polling places are set up so there's one in every neighborhood. I don't know if you can walk to an ATM in every neighborhood."
Mr. Lee said his county considered but rejected the idea of ATMs as voting booths when it set up a task force in 1994 to reform the voting process there. Mr. Lee said ATMs would not adequately protect voters' privacy. If a recount were necessary, he said, the machines might not be available for normal business use for maybe a month after Election Day. Worse still, "people already feel money is a controlling factor in elections," Mr. Lee said. "If the entity that controls the machines is a banking institution, the perception could be worse."
Thomas P. Vartanian, a lawyer at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, said electronic voting may not square with the principle that the secret ballot is of "paramount sanctity" in this country.
He said a corrupt official could just "manipulate the final number if there is no way of documenting what went into that number.