We The E People

Joe Mohen brings missionary zeal to the notion of online voting--and sees ways to make a buck at it

Forget the piecemeal reforms proffered by the Presidential contenders. There's a real political revolution brewing in Arizona's Mar. 11 primary. And in a sign of the times, it's being sparked by a tiny Web startup in Garden City, N.Y., that didn't even exist a year ago: election.com.

"Americans are committed, it's just that voting is cumbersome," bellows Chief Executive Joe Mohen, a 43-year-old former computer-security exec who dabbled in local politics and saw an Internet opportunity in elections. Now, he pushes the once-phantasmic notion of Internet voting--direct from the desktop, far from polling booths--with evangelical flair.

His nonpartisan outfit sets up voter-registration infrastructure for both public and private elections, encrypts voting traffic, and hands officials the tallied results. But nonpartisan doesn't mean nonprofit. Election.com tries to make money either through per-vote fees (sometimes as high as $1.50 for private elections) and flat setup charges, usually in the tens of thousands of dollars. Financial backers include Verisign, the Mountain View (Calif.) Net security firm.

Election.com's first big public test comes next month, when it helps run Arizona's Democratic presidential primary. In 1996, only 12,000 of 800,000 registered voters participated. This time, the party is predicting Net voting will push the total to 50,000. This may be a watershed melding of politics and technology, but others see it as a civic threat. "You strip away the specialness of an election day," says Deborah Phillips, director of the Voting Integrity Project, which has sued in Arizona to thwart online voting. Then there's the racial impact. Compared with white voters, blacks and Hispanics own fewer PCs, which limits Web access.

Mohen, a registered Republican, brushes aside critics, noting plans for 50 public Net polling places across the state. The Web, he argues, will boost voter participation. "We're actually extending the places where people can vote," he says.

Election.com won't disclose revenues, but admits it isn't profitable yet--especially after having expanded from four to 44 employees. It plans for an inevitable initial public offering in early 2001. Yet Mohen claims his visions contain more than money bags. "I believe we can radically improve democracy in this country," he says. Citizens, click your conscience.

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