Overseas electronic voting pilot project announced

Overseas voters registered in Okaloosa County, Fla., will have a chance to try an electronic absentee voting system in next year's general election, county election officials announced.

The Okaloosa Distance Balloting Project will put a handful of kiosk computers, staffed by trained poll workers, at locations near U.S. military facilities in the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan to enable as many as 900 voters to cast absentee ballots via a virtual private network.

The pilot, announced Dec. 5 in Washington, is the initial project of the Operation Bring Remote Access to Voters Overseas (BRAVO) Foundation, whose goal is to establish reliable electronic alternatives to paper-and-mail absentee voting for Americans overseas in time for the 2016 presidential election.

Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Pat Hollarn, who started the program, said she was frustrated with modest efforts in past election years to correct difficulties overseas voters have in receiving and casting ballots via mail. The county is home to a number of military bases, with 20,000 of the service members and families registered to vote in the county currently stationed overseas.

Pilot programs at the federal level that tried combinations of e-mailed and faxed ballots have not resulted in a working program, she said.

'We are approaching another presidential election without a secure, reliable overseas voting system,' Hollarn said, adding that she realized 'this is not going to happen from the top down. It has to happen from the bottom up,' starting with local election officials.

The size of the overseas U.S. voting population is not known precisely, but estimates go as high as 7 million. Problems with receiving and casting absentee ballots have received increased attention in recent years because of the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. But voters -- both military and civilian -- have long experienced problems. As many as two-thirds of overseas voters who request ballots are not able to cast them in time to be counted in the election, according to some estimates.

The system selected for the program will use voting software from Scytl Secure Electronic Voting S.A., a Barcelona-based company that has developed secure remote voting systems for a number of foreign countries. On-site poll workers will authenticate remote voters' identities, and people will cast votes directly to a secure server in Okaloosa County. No data will be stored on the remote kiosks.

Hollarn began working on the project three years ago. She helped create Operation BRAVO Foundation as a funding vehicle and is president of the foundation's board of directors. No tax money is being spent on the Okaloosa project. Instead, the foundation will seek individual and corporate donations and grants from other nonprofit organizations.

The Okaloosa pilot 'is only the first of many projects that will mature into real solutions,' said Carol Paquette, a member of the foundation's board.

Because of the foundation's small size and limited resources, 'we are not prepared to take on more projects this year,' she said. However, a number of local election officials around the country have proposed projects that the foundation might pursue in coming election cycles. 'We expect this spring we will start talking with the other officials to start planning for 2010,' she added.

The Okaloosa project will focus only on casting ballots remotely, said John Bodin, managing partner at Election Trust of Bellevue, Wash. Organizers realized they could get bogged down in the problem of strong remote authentication, so instead poll workers will verify voters' identities on-site and in person by accessing the county's electronic voter registration database. Once authenticated, voters will receive smart cards with digital certificates to access the voting kiosks.

Kiosks will be a laptop PCs with no hard drives. They will boot up from a CD containing the Scytl software and connect via VPN with a secure server in Okaloosa. The server will provide the appropriate ballot for the voter's precinct and record the votes. The system will also generate a paper ballot, which poll workers will keep while the voter retains a receipt with a tracking number to enable verification that the electronic ballot was tallied.

The Security and Assurance in Information Technology Laboratory at Florida State University will review the software, as it has for statewide voting systems.

Because the pilot kiosk system does not include automatic voter authentication and requires county poll workers to be on site, it will not translate to general deployment. However, officials say they hope it will demonstrate the feasibility of remote electronic voting and result in a system that states and counties could adopt by 2016.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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