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AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME -- ALMOST

California's current debate over online voting is yet another sign the old traditional polling place is about to be swamped by the tidal wave of technological change. For now, though, digital democracy remains as premature as it is inevitable.

In focusing solely on convenience as a way of boosting the number of voters, backers are missing some other characteristics of the American electoral system. It's not just a ballot, but a secret ballot; it's not just a vote but a franchise.

In an era of e-commerce and e-banking, e-voting may seem just another step in societal evolution. But it's a step that shouldn't be taken until we're certain elections (or is it e-lections?) can't be rigged by hackers, and that any system designed to ensure that a vote is cast only by a registered voter doesn't also trace how that computer-user voted. Add to that concerns over disenfranchising the poor, in a nation where computers still are present in only 42 percent of the homes, and there's reason enough to move slowly and cautiously on this idea.

Developers of voting software already claim confidence that their systems are both accurate and secure. A town in Washington accepted the first computer-cast votes early last year, and successful test runs have been done in Virginia and in Iowa. As many as 50,000 Arizona voters will vote on-line, either from home with a digital security code or on polling-place computers, in the state's Democratic primaries this March, and soldiers overseas will be able to vote by computer this year.

The idea does hold promise for increasing voter turnout, especially in the technologically comfortable 18-to-24 age cohort that sent only 15 percent of its members to the polls in 1998. It would undoubtedly benefit physically disadvantaged voters.

But there are questions, even beyond security and accuracy. Will click-voting worsen an already deplorable shift in campaigns from substantive debate to image-based advertising? And will online voting -- which basically seeks to involve those who aren't willing now to make the simple effort to vote -- really increase "turnout?" Lowering the voting age to 18 was supposed to, but didn't. "Motor-voter" programs that coupled voter registration with the issuance of driver's licenses or welfare boosted eligibility, but actual voting remains in decline.

There's still time, before the e-tidal wave, to test these waters before just diving in. We should be sure of these systems before entrusting our democracy to them.

It's not that online voting is a bad idea whose time has come. It may be a good idea whose time is not quite yet.

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