Bruce Starr killed his own bill this week. The Washington County state senator visited his peers in the House and asked them, respectfully, to give it the heave-ho. You have to admire the guy. He had thought it would be a good time to study the possibility of ditching Oregon’s vote-by-mail system for a fancier, higher-tech version. He not only realized he was wrong, but he admitted it, too, before pushing the state further in that direction. In the land of Cover Oregon, that’s big. Not quite “Profiles in Courage” big, but it’s a nice change of pace in a state that seems serially unaware of the limits of its technological prowess. It’s also a welcome check on the propensity to assume the smartest choice is always the highest-tech one. Starr came up with the idea while traveling last year in Estonia, which has embraced Internet-based voting. He thought that maybe Oregon, known for pushing the envelope on voter access, might give online voting a closer look. “When I was there, it was like, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’ They clearly have a system that works, at least for their citizens,” Starr said. ” …. That is the beginning of what brought us to this bill.” So he packed the idea in his suitcase and brought it home. However, the timing for introducing a feasibility study for a new state tech initiative turned out to be less than ideal.
First came the calamitous rollout last fall of Cover Oregon, the online exchange for health insurance. The Web site was intended to be a convenient portal that would burnish Oregon’s reputation as a health care innovator, but it is better known as buggy, half-useable and profoundly expensive. Next came the major hack in early February of the secretary of state’s web site, which triggered a multiweek shutdown of online business and elections databases and raised questions about the state’s vulnerability to security breaches. Yet Senate Bill 1515 kept bobbing along, like a paper boat on the ocean.
In mid-February, the state Senate voted in favor of Starr’s bill. Sen. Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, suggested that Oregon could become a national pioneer in online voting, much as it was with voting by mail. And Secretary of State Kate Brown, while speaking more broadly about technology, explained that young people will want their ballots electronically.
But then citizens piped up, saying: STOP! They fretted that a study might create momentum toward abandoning Oregon’s lower-tech, highly respected vote-by-mail system in pursuit of something costly and less trustworthy. They cited reports from some of the nation’s top experts in computer science and Internet security, warning of the inherent vulnerabilities of electronically transmitted votes. The League of Women Voters of Oregon brought in a national expert to remind that it is “currently impossible to securely conduct voting over the Internet.”