DOD cancels plans for overseas Internet voting

The Pentagon has pulled the plug on an Internet voting program scheduled for this year's presidential election because of concerns about the system's security.

The Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment will not be used to cast live absentee votes in the election, although testing will continue. The decision was made Jan. 30, said Defense Department spokeswoman Maj. Sandra Burr.

'It was done in view of the inability to ensure the legitimacy of votes that would be cast in SERVE, thereby bringing into doubt the integrity of the election results,' Burr said.

The decision came a little more than a week after a group of security analysts who evaluated the program recommended that it be scrapped. The analysts concluded that 'Internet voting presents far too many opportunities for hackers or even terrorists to interfere with fair and accurate voting.'

DOD officials initially responded to the criticism by saying that security had been built into the system from the beginning and that there were no plans to halt the program.

SERVE is a project of DOD's Federal Voting Assistance Program to improve absentee voting procedures for U.S. citizens living and serving overseas. It is an expansion of a small program that counted a handful of overseas military votes in the 2000 presidential election. As many as 100,000 voters from 50 counties in seven states were to have used SERVE to register and cast votes in the general election.

Accenture Ltd. of Chicago received a contract to develop SERVE in 2002. The contract runs through March 2005 to allow for post-election review. Eligible voters would have used online PCs to register and cast votes through the SERVE Web site at www.serveusa.gov.

A panel of outside analysts, some known to be critical of online voting, was put together to evaluate SERVE. The team split deeply over its advisability, and a minority reported that the problems were not in SERVE but in the inherent vulnerabilities of the Internet and user PCs.

Others on the panel said SERVE would be at least as secure and reliable as the present mail-in system for overseas voting, and that it was important to test the concept.

'It's an experiment,' said political scientist Thad Hall, program officer with the Century Foundation in Washington. 'This is a test of a new technology for voting, which is what happens all the time with new voting systems.'

Although developers had hoped to use the system in at least some primary elections, it had not yet been certified for use.

SERVE may not be alive, but it is not yet dead, either. 'Our efforts will continue to demonstrate the technological ability to cast votes on the Internet,' Burr said. She said FVAP has not decided how the program will be continued.

Accenture put the best face on the decision.

'The decision to continue testing will allow Accenture and FVAP to study Internet voting in ways that would not have been possible if the votes were being cast in a live election,' spokeswoman Meg McLaughlin said. 'This is now an opportunity to demonstrate that the Internet is viable, valuable and secure enough to use for filing absentee ballots.'


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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