What's inside the government's e-voting booth?

The world's newest voting booth is having its curtain wrinkles ironed out by the Defense Department's Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment.

Starting in January, SERVE expects to register online about 100,000 military and civilian absentee voters for the 2004 primary and general elections.

Meg McLaughlin, global managing partner for e-democracy at prime contractor Accenture LLP of Chicago, said the SERVE contract, awarded last year, will run through March 2005 to allow for post-election review. Accenture representatives would not disclose the contract value.

In the 2002 elections, about 100 military users in several states tried Internet voting in a 'good, small prototype,' McLaughlin said. 'For 2004, we're working to scale in more states.'

The 50 counties participating next year are located in Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota, North and South Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington.

The 2002 Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act requires SERVE to provide full-service balloting for entire tickets'local as well as national'in all 50 counties.

Help to sign up

The Federal Voter Assistance Program site, at www.fvap.gov, has maps and eligibility information for military personnel and other voters whose jobs will keep them away from the polls on election days.

Civilian voters must apply in person for IDs and passwords at a U.S. consulate, embassy or other authorized location. Military voter authentication will rely on digital certificates embedded in Common Access smart cards.

Once a DOD user has signed up with a military ID, McLaughlin said, VeriSign Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., will supply that person with a 'roaming certificate' that works with any Internet-connected PC running Microsoft Windows. Hart InterCivic Inc. of Austin, Texas, is Accenture's second subcontractor.

The printed ballots will first come to Accenture for translation into digital formats deliverable to all Web browsers.

When an absentee voter signs on to www.serveusa.gov, that person's ballot will appear on the screen, showing the contests from president on down to local offices. Votes are cast by mouse clicks; the voter must confirm the choices on a second screen before they become final. Accenture then transmits a confirmation and sends the ballot to the county for tallying, with the voter's data segregated from the actual votes.

'Neither DOD nor Accenture is counting the ballots,' McLaughlin said. 'That's up to the local jurisdiction.'

Cutoff dates differ by state, but electronic polling means voters can exercise their right somewhat closer to election day than if they were mailing paper ballots. 'Also, it eliminates the dilemma of whether a jurisdiction can count a paper ballot that arrives without a postmark,' McLaughlin said.

A help desk will operate 24 hours a day next year in case of voting errors.

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