IT gives e-voting a booster shot

Cybereye | Commentary: Even when IT is not a silver bullet, it might be part of the solution

The Overseas Vote Foundation deserves credit for the new suite of online tools launched with its newly revamped Web site. The applications help military and civilian U.S. citizens living abroad gather information on absentee voting and navigate the maze of local voter registration procedures.

Electronic-voting technology is under a lot of scrutiny these days. Touted by some as a way of improving the efficiency and security of the voting process and opening it up to wider participation, it is condemned by others who say its potential for abuse scales right along with the benefits. But OVF's efforts show that even when IT cannot do everything for us, it can be used to solve at least some of our problems.

As its name implies, the Overseas Vote Foundation focuses on just a small slice of the U.S. electoral process: Ensuring that persons living outside the country have the opportunity to exercise their rights to vote. Small as that slice might be, it is a significant challenge. There are an estimated 6 million eligible voters living overseas, many of them active-duty military personnel stationed in war zones. But according to the Election Assistance Commission, fewer than 1 million of these persons requested absentee ballots for the 2006 elections, and only a third of those ballots were actually cast or counted. Most of the ballots could not be delivered because of bad addresses.

The tools on the new OVF Web site address only a small part of this problem: getting overseas voters registered and providing them with information. But they do this well. The principal application provides a common front end for all state registration processes. It automatically loads required questions for the appropriate state and county, prompts users through the answering process with drop-down lists, and generates a completed PDF application that can be printed, signed and mailed. It also generates instructions for voter registration in the user's home jurisdiction, along with the address for mailing the application.

The application is hosted and secured by ServerVault of Dulles, Va., to help ensure the security of personal information used on the application forms.

Robert Carey, senior fellow at the National Defense Committee, an advocacy group for military personnel, said the tool makes it almost impossible to screw up an application that, in many cases, could be difficult to fill out correctly.

There are a lot of issues facing the overseas voter that this tool does not address. It only produces an application that usually must be mailed to a registration office; it does nothing about the two weeks it can often take for overseas mail to reach a U.S. address. OVF president Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat said, 'We haven't gotten funding yet to completely revamp the U.S. mail system.' And once a voter is registered, this tool does not help overseas voters receive or cast a ballot, which can be difficult to do in a timely manner.

But OVF deserves credit for taking the bite it could, rather than waiting for a way to consume the entire beast at once. If the organization had set its sights on a complete, integrated turnkey system that would solve all voting questions in a single, secure platform, it would still be waiting. Instead, it applied some technology to a small part of the problem where technology would work and has gone a long way toward solving that part.

Information technology holds great promise, and someday it might provide a way to make our elections fairer, more transparent and open to all. It is not clear that it is ready now to do this, but it is good to see it being used where it can make a difference.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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