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TECH ISLAND / TECHNOLOGY / This Dot-Com Wants to Throw Ballot Boxes Out the Window

EVEN AFTER his dot-com baptism by fire, Joe Mohen still

lights up like a child when describing the Internet election his Garden

City-based company just pulled off in Arizona.

The chief executive of election.com uses terms like "unreal" and "you can't

make this stuff up" to describe the way life changed when his start-up firm

decided to take on the country's first legally binding public election.

"It was one of the most interesting projects ever in our lives," he said.

"We've gotten a lot of new business and a lot of new partnerships, from the top

technology companies in the world. The top service companies. Heads of

state..." To say nothing of an anticipated part in the upcoming November

elections.

Little surprise.

Between last month and last fall, when election.com first announced that it

would administer the Democratic presidential primary in Arizona, the amount of

free media the company rang up would have stretched any Fortune 500 ad

budget-if they could have bought it.

The media circus reached a peak when Mohen's family, watching him live on

CNN, turned the channel to find another election.com official on another

international newscast at the same time.

For Mohen, who co-founded Garden City software developer Proginet and

served as its chief executive until last year, the shower of media attention

and the prospects for election.com amount to a second life of sorts, the kind

granted to only a handful of Silicon Valley kingpins.

Speaking to Mohen, a tireless promoter and traveler who was in Washington

last week presenting the company model to the Federal Election Commission, it

is nearly impossible to find the signs of exhaustion that creep into the voices

of his dot-com counterparts on similar treadmills. To hear him tell it, so

much had been going on before Arizona, and so much is coming after it, that

it's hard to view it as the milestone it was.

"We have already proven ourselves in private-sector elections," he said.

"We have proven we're the leader in the public sector, that we can handle

remote and polling place and multimodal voting."

It was no cakewalk. After nabbing the bid from Seattle-based rival

VoteHere.net, election.com had to scramble to overcome a number of hurdles,

including scrutiny by the Department of Justice and a lawsuit seeking to quash

the process.

There were also concerns that an Internet election would dilute or exclude

minorities, a factor addressed by a voter registration effort, and three

detected hacking attempts on the site during the election, Mohen said.

One unnamed journal even encouraged readers to hack the site, Mohen said,

but none was successful.

What were the costs? No one's releasing dollar figures, but at one point

the company maintained a staff of 16 lawyers in Arizona to argue its case and

make certain it was meeting legal requirements.

What's more, in late December, Mohen hopped on a plane to negotiate the

purchase of the Election.com name from a holder at what he says is the

eighth-highest price ever paid for a domain name, although he declined to name

the price. The company's previous name was Votation.com.

While a public offering is most certainly in the company's future (a

process he learned well at Proginet), Mohen refuses to discuss it, saying the

company's election projects won't stand the distraction now. Nor would he

discuss cost of infrastructure enhancements, or the price Arizona paid for the

election.

Christy Adkinson, director of marketing for rival company VoteHere.net,

which had been the sole bidder for the Arizona project, suggested the price

probably was relatively cheap.

VoteHere had worked out an agreement with Arizona Democrats to do a

smaller-scale online election in the state for free. But she said Democrats

wanted a larger-scale project with remote voting, also for free. When

VoteHere.net said it would have to charge, Election.com was called in, she said.

But Election.com didn't conduct the election for free. Regardless of the

cost, even critics say the vote was probably necessary to provide a forum to

review the success-or ultimate failure-of such a contest.

VoteHere.net seems to be banking on the notion that the states of

California and Florida could be first with an actual public election, and it

has applied for certification of its voting system in those states. The

VoteHere system, however, relies primarily on Internet voting stations, and not

remote home or office voting, a concept that could soon be endorsed by

California.

Election.com is pursuing similar certifications, even while pursuing other

goals here and abroad.

"Internet voting is legal in France," Mohen said. "We've had requests for

major elections to be held in countries over the next four years. You may see

other countries significantly outpace the United States in this area."

Requests from voters also led the company to consider developing its own

Internet voting station, an "intelligent browser only for voting," Mohen said.

In the end, he said, the decision to administer the Arizona vote has helped

define an already well-formed dot.com. "We had been one of the best-known

private companies in the world," he said. "To say we were working under a

microscope is an understatement. But you can't put a price tag on what we

learned."

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