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Louisianna - NY Times

June 22, 1999

Plan for Internet Voting in Louisiana Falls Apart

A plan among Louisiana Republicans to use the Internet to conduct a caucus vote for Presidential candidates was scrapped last week when the issue became a flash point for a bitter conflict within the party.

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The party members who pushed the plan said their goal was to use the publicity generated by an Internet caucus to get Republican Presidential candidates to address issues important to the state. The caucus, which will use conventional polling places, is now scheduled to take place several weeks before many states' primary elections in March.

The Internet plan was opposed by more conservative Republicans, led by Mike Francis, chairman of the party, who said the risk of voter fraud made the plan impracticable.

The party's executive committee took a vote on the issue on June 12. Supporters of the Internet plan said the committee's vote against the plan was improper because a quorum was not present. In the days following that meeting, Francis dismissed several aides and party leaders and changed the locks on the party headquarters office in Baton Rouge. His opponents responded by voting to strip Francis of the power to write checks and ordering him to supply a key to the office.

Dewitte Hall, a member of the executive committee who backed the Internet voting plan, said he would stop pushing the idea because of the political infighting.

"If his goal was to screw up the Internet plan, then the plan succeeded," he said. "It was a classic example of what goes on down here with this party."

Beyond the immediate conflict, the issues underlying the dispute reveal dynamics that could help or hinder the establishment of Internet voting in other jurisdictions in the future, said Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University and an expert on Louisiana politics.

The backers of the Internet plan are trying to build a more moderate party, Parent said. If people were allowed to vote over the Internet, a greater number of moderate voters might have participated in the caucus -- an outcome that is not in the interest of the conservative wing of the party.

"It lost because the ideological forces were afraid of what it could do," Parent said.

Caucuses, in general, attract more conservative voters. That was certainly the case with Louisiana's 1996 caucus, in which less than 6 percent of party members participated. Pat Buchanan won the vote.

"The caucus system benefits people who have very intense feelings about their ideology, and that's a hallmark of Christian conservatives," Parent said. "The Internet opens it to the range of moderate voters who would be much more likely to participate. The Internet would open it up to people who wanted Elizabeth Dole or George Bush."

The debate in Louisiana over Internet voting was constantly plagued by accusations that the method would benefit one candidate or another.

"This is where Louisiana has a chance to say, 'We're the first in history."

Francis acknowledged that typical caucus voters were "more traditional and resistant to change." He also observed that it "seems like most of them pushing for the Internet were pushing for Bush."

Based on the party's debate over Internet voting, Francis said that in order for a state or a party to successfully implement voting online, "you need to cross that bridge of, 'Well, it's going to hurt one candidate and help another.'"

Several states have started discussing whether to allow residents to vote over the Internet. California election officials convened an Internet voting task force in March. In Minnesota and Washington, bills were introduced in the state legislatures this year to study the issue. On the Federal level, a program is under way at the Pentagon to create a system that would let Americans who are overseas cast ballots online.

Jonathan Nagler, a visiting professor at Harvard University, said that when members of one group consider adopting new voting methods, their ideological opponents usually fear that the new methods will hurt them because more people could vote. That conflict may surface in future debates over casting ballots online, he said.

Still, Nagler predicted that the events in Louisiana would be unlikely to affect discussions of Internet voting in other states because the issue was obscured by the conflict within the Republican Party.

"I don't see where there's a lesson to be learned here," said Nagler, a member of the California Internet Voting Task Force. "You can't point to the issues that caused a breakdown. The Internet happened to be the mechanism."

To Rolfe McCollister Jr., a Republican Party member who plans to run next year for mayor of Baton Rouge, the Internet voting plan would have been good for the state's image.

"This is where Louisiana has a chance to say, 'We're the first in history,'" he said.

McCollister had hoped the party could rise above its politics, but clearly, he said, the issue became "more a showdown about power and turf than about the technology."

McCollister scoffed at Francis's explanation for his objection to the plan -- the risk of fraud.

"In Louisiana," he said, "we have fraud all the time."

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