NIST conducts risk analysis of evoting

NIST study says electronic transmission can securely deliver ballots to overseas voters, but challenges still remain to electronically casting ballots.

Overseas military personnel and their families are entitled to vote in U.S. elections under the Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), but these voters often have been disenfranchised because of delays in receiving and casting absentee ballots by traditional mail for local and federal elections.

Half of that problem could be solved by electronic transmission of blank ballots to voters, according to a new study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Ballots could be distributed securely by telephone, fax, e-mail and Web-based services using existing technology and safeguards, NIST concluded in the study, titled “A Threat Analysis of UOCAVA Voting Systems.”

“Voter registration and requests for a blank ballot by the UOCAVA voter can be reliably facilitated and expedited by the use of any of the electronic transmission options,” the report states. “The associated threats can be mitigated through the use of procedural and technical security controls and do not pose significant risks to the integrity of elections.”

But electronically casting a ballot remains a challenge that current systems probably are not up to handling securely.

“The return of voted ballots poses threats that are more serious and challenging than the threats to delivery of blank ballots and registration and ballot request,” the report adds. “In particular, election officials must be able to ascertain that an electronically returned voted ballot has come from a registered voter and that it has not been changed in transit. Because of this and other security-related issues, the threats to the return of voted ballots by e-mail and Web are difficult to overcome.”

The report recommends a number of security controls to ensure the safe delivery of blank ballots, based on IT security guidelines developed by NIST under the Federal Information Security Management Act. But a watch-and-wait approach is recommended for returning voted ballots. For the time being, traditional mail probably remains the best option for that step.

The study, funded by the Election Assistance Commission, is the first detailed risk analysis of electronic overseas voting technologies. The use of IT to assist overseas voters dates to 1990, when the Electronic Transmission Service was established during Operation Desert Shield to allow military personnel to request and receive absentee ballots by fax. The system was expanded in 2003 to allow fax-to-e-mail conversion for faster delivery. Local election officials can fax requested ballots to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which will e-mail them to the voter as a read-only PDF attachment.

A number of federal Web-based voting pilot programs and experiments have been tried but shelved without significant success. A number of local initiatives, such as the Okaloosa, Fla., Distance Balloting Pilot Project, are experimenting with online voting technology, and the Overseas Voting Foundation has created a number of Web-based resources to assist voters in registering and obtaining absentee ballots.

But delays in delivering and returning ballots still have kept overseas turnout low in recent elections. The problem is complicated by the fact that local jurisdictions often do not finalize ballots until 30 to 45 days before the election. Traditional mail delivery to overseas residents typically takes five to 10 days, and delivery to military personnel can take 10 to 14 days, leaving little leeway for receiving and returning ballots under the best of conditions.

The NIST study uses the model for analyzing risks laid out in Federal Information Processing Standard 199, which specifies criteria for categorizing impacts as high, moderate or low in each of three security areas: confidentiality, integrity and availability. For the process of registering to vote and requesting a ballot, possible confidentiality impacts are rated as high, and impacts of integrity and availability are rated as moderate. For delivering a ballot, confidentiality is rated as a low impact, but integrity and availability are rated high. For returning a voted ballot, all areas are rated as high impact.

“Distribution of blank ballots to the UOCAVA voter can be reliably facilitated and expedited by the use of fax, e-mail or Web transmission,” the study found. “The threats associated with using fax, e-mail and Web transmission can be mitigated through the use of procedural and technical security controls and therefore do not pose significant risks to the integrity of elections.”

But sending voted ballots to election officials poses significant challenges. “Use of fax poses the fewest challenges; however, fax offers limited protection for voter privacy,” the report states. “While the threats to telephone, e-mail and Web can be mitigated through the use of procedural and technical security controls, they are still more serious and challenging to overcome.”

The study uses NIST Special Publication 800-30, titled “Risk Management Guide for Information Technology Systems,” and SP 800-53, “Recommended Security Controls for Federal Information Technology Systems,” to recommend controls for the security challenges posed by each of the technologies studied for each step of the voting process.

Applying the security controls in a systematic way would be a strong step toward improving overseas voting systems and enfranchising overseas voters.

“A number of states already distribute blank ballots via fax or e-mail,” the report concludes. “However, at this time, there are no guidelines documenting best practices for fax, e-mail or Web distribution of ballots. Developing a best practices document could help improve methods for distributing ballots using these transmission methods, and potentially improve the procedures and technical controls already in place in states currently using these methods.”

But IT is not yet a cure for all of the problems overseas voting presents. “Voted ballot return remains a more difficult issue to address, however emerging trends and developments in this area should continue to be studied and monitored.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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