Overseas voters rock the vote with online tools

Systems give absentee voters access to ballots, while stopping short of online voting

U.S. citizens who live overseas, whether military or civilian, have a host of new options for requesting, receiving and returning ballots for federal elections. The Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act, signed into law late last year, requires states to provide absentee ballots in at least one electronic format.

The Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program, charged under the MOVE Act with facilitating overseas voting, has established an online Electronic Voting Support Wizard that develops state-operated websites that let voters access and mark ballots and then print them for mailing or return them electronically.

Some states also have developed their own ballot systems. Counties in Delaware, which had a late primary election this year, are using the cloud-based LiveBallot system from Democracy Live to deliver voter-specific ballots. The first electronic absentee ballots were sent shortly after midnight Sept. 19, five days after the primary, and the first ballot had been returned by 6 a.m., said Howard Sholl, the state’s project officer and deputy elections director for New Castle County. By the end of the day, five ballots had been received.

“It was working,” Sholl said.

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The MOVE law was intended to address the logistical problems that have made voting nearly impossible for 6.5 million U.S. citizens living abroad.

“Due to logistical, geographical, operational and environmental barriers, military and overseas voters are burdened by many obstacles that impact their right to vote and register to vote, the most critical of which include problems transmitting balloting materials and not being given enough time to vote,” the act states in its preamble.

Requiring states to support electronic requests for and delivery of absentee ballots can significantly shorten the time required for voting, allowing more overseas votes to count.

“In the last year, we have seen more progress in overseas and military voting than in the last five decades,” said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and CEO of the Overseas Vote Foundation.

The MOVE Act does not specify the technology to be used. Dzieduszycka-Suinat said 48 states are offering the ability to download an absentee ballot or have it e-mailed. Alaska and Rhode Island support only faxed ballots, and that also meets the act’s requirements. A number of states have failed to meet deadlines for making ballots available, but the infrastructure for delivering them is being put into place.

“We’ve made incredible progress in addressing this problem,” she said. “With the technology available over time, it has become doable, and Congress has mandated it.”

Workable Tools

Under the Federal Voting Assistance Program, DOD has prequalified several online ballot delivery systems, including LiveBallot, to help states meet federal requirements. In Delaware, voters already were allowed to fax or e-mail absentee ballots, but there was no mechanism to support that, Sholl said.

“Our concern was that, while we were allowing people to do this, we weren’t giving them the tools to do it,” he said. So the state jumped at the chance to get federal assistance in implementing an online system.

Delaware already had a system for creating and exporting ballot data to voting machines and for distributing traditional domestic absentee ballots, and the state chose LiveBallot because it could support that system.

“We had a system that worked,” Sholl said. “We’re not going to change it.”

Voters requesting an electronic ballot receive an e-mail message with a voucher number that enables them to access the proper ballot online. Because many jurisdictions have multiple ballots depending on a voter's residence, the system delivers the proper ballot based on geographic data provided by the state. That data is associated with the voter’s residence.

The voter fills out the ballot online and has the option of e-mailing it as an attachment to an elections office or printing it and sending it via fax or mail. For e-mail messages, the voter also digitally signs an oath that accompanies the completed ballot. That signature does not require a digital certificate but uses personal information that is not available in the system.

“It’s a simple approach that is easy for the voter,” Sholl said.

This is not a particularly sensitive process, said Bryan Finney, president of Democracy Live.

“This is not online voting,” he said. “We are simply delivering the ballot,” which already is public information. The method of delivery for a completed ballot is up to the state. Although Delaware allows voters to fax or e-mail finished ballots to election officials, most states require printing and mailing the completed ballot.

A number of programs for returning marked paper ballots, coupled with electronic delivery of blank ballots, enable overseas voters to vote in a timely manner. Ballots can be mailed through U.S. mail without postage, and FedEx will deliver ballots for free in 94 countries under the Express Your Vote program.

LiveBallot is hosted on Microsoft’s Widows Azure cloud computing platform.

A Case for Cloud

“This is one of the best use cases I’ve seen for cloud computing,” said Andy Pitman, Microsoft government industry manager. By moving the system to the cloud, states would not need to maintain the infrastructure to support spikes in election activity that occur only several times a year or every two years.

Dzieduszycka-Suinat emphasized that the MOVE law deals with only electronic delivery of blank ballots. “This is not online voting. As the D.C. fiasco has shown, online voting is not secure,” she said.

During a trial of the Digital Vote by Mail system developed by Washington D.C., hackers were challenged to attack the system. A team from the University of Michigan reportedly breached the system. That incident and similar problems involving online, electronic or networked voting systems demonstrate that online voting is not yet secure enough to be feasible, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.

“We cannot at this time advocate that it be implemented,” she said. “We love the idea, but it is not ready yet.”

With progress made in ballot delivery, the next challenge is to engage overseas voters who for years might not have been participating in the process, she said. Only about 10 percent of eligible overseas voters typically cast ballots. “Now we can address the turnout problem.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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