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Military Voting Goes Online
Overseas electorate hopes to regain voting rights on the Internet
By , ISI

military voting - image by Corbis When it comes to elections, one group of voters is less equal than others. These voters have shown a patriotism and devotion to homeland that are beyond reproach. Yet their ability to exercise their most fundamental democratic right is restricted. They are the men and women of the U.S. military overseas.

Tossed from posting to posting, increasingly with little notice, military voters rely on an absentee vote-by-mail system. All too often, it lets them down.

Mailing a ballot request or change-of-address may be the last thing on a soldier's mind as he prepares to leave his family. And as we learned in Florida 2000, military ballots can be lost, damaged or disqualified if, for example, they arrive without a postmark. A 1996 post-election survey found that one-fourth of all eligible military personnel failed to exercise their voting franchise because their ballots did not arrive in time, a sorry record.

Faced with these inequities, the Federal Voting Assistance Project (FVAP) embarked on a history-making Internet voting test during the 2000 presidential election. The Voting Over the Internet project went off without a hitch, although there was some grumbling about its cost-per-vote ratio ($6.2 million for 84 voters).

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FVAP's response to the criticism was that the project was a technological feasibility study, not intended to rack up big numbers. Now Congress has asked FVAP to conduct the most ambitious Internet voting project on record. The effort - called the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment - will take place in 2004, and its scope will be broad. Up to 200,000 voters will take part, and a host of county and state election jurisdictions. The aim will be to see if Internet voting can become a reality for this special group of voters.

Their numbers are not inconsiderable. Encompassing military and civilian government employees and their families, and citizens living and working abroad, the overseas electorate numbers 6 million - enough to swing a close election.

Internet voting has taken some heavy hits in recent years. In California, a task force rejected online balloting, fearing a "Trojan horse" virus could lie in wait and direct software to cast votes without the voter's knowledge. The National Science Foundation-funded Workshop on Internet Voting, convened in 2000 at then-President Bill Clinton's request, also found that Internet voting was not ready for roll-out, now and perhaps for a long time.

"The security risks associated with these systems are both numerous and pervasive, and in many cases, cannot be resolved using even today's most sophisticated technology," the workshop report said.

The basic question is how to keep ballots both secret and secure. As a partial answer to the problem, FVAP in 2000 built on an initiative already underway in the Department of Defense, which oversees the voting agency: the Public Key Infrastructure. PKI ensures secure transmission of data by the use of secure encrypted digital signatures. The digital signatures take the place of handwritten signatures in a vote-by-mail system. FVAP also paid hackers to try to break in to test its intrusion-detection systems. The detection systems worked; the only hackers were the "expected" kind.

But the best security is only as good as the people who use it. In 2000, military voters received their PKI certifications via floppy discs, which they were supposed to load into their home or office computers. But by the time the vote rolled around, about one-half of participants had either misplaced their discs, or forgotten their passwords.

The PKI system was new to the military, FVAP says. Now, personnel must use PKI to access their e-mail. Soldiers should be accustomed to using digital signatures by the time 2004 rolls around.

Another problem that cropped up in 2000 was that the Internet voting system created extra work for election officials back home. This was because the small feasibility study made no attempt to integrate the Internet ballot casting with county voter registration and ballot-tabulation systems.

Despite the problems, FVAP considers Voting Over the Internet a successful technology study. Planning for the 2004 election is well underway. Recognizing that the larger project could be a more attractive target for hackers, additional security engineering is planned.

The project will be integrated with state and local election systems, to provide a more realistic assessment of how Internet registration and voting might work in the future. The goal will be to avoid increasing election officials' workload. Much more attention will be placed on how Internet voting affects the overall election process - for the voters and election officials.

FVAP agrees with the NSF assessment that remote Internet voting has a long way to go before it's ready for the general public. At the same time, the agency is testing another NSF conclusion, that remote Internet voting may well serve special populations, such as the military. FVAP plans to continue research to see if remote Internet voting can be made sufficiently secure to serve as an alternative to vote-by-mail for this group, which deserves the best we have to offer.