DOD to test online absentee voting

As part of the growing national interest in online voting, a Defense Department organization plans to test the use of digital ballots to make it easier for Americans stationed overseas to vote in stateside elections.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program and five states have begun work on a pilot project for the Year 2000 presidential election that will allow members of the U.S. armed forces who are overseas to cast absentee ballots electronically rather than through the mail.

Voting officials see online voting as a way to save money and increase voter turnout by making voting easy and accessible. Once security issues are settled, the Internet also could be a useful tool for distributing information about elections.

"We all want to make sure our vote is secure and that the integrity of the poll is maintained. We strive for that," said Polly Brunelli, director of the FVAP, a DOD organization that helps Americans living overseas to vote in stateside elections. "It's not only [that] we want to encourage the voting part; we also want to make sure voters are informed."

Brunelli and her colleagues soon will begin searching the ranks of servicemen and—women stationed abroad for 350 absentee voter volunteers from certain jurisdictions in Florida, Missouri, Texas, South Carolina or Utah who also have access to an online computer.

The pilot program will borrow basic principles used by the FVAP's current procedure, which begins when voters send a postcard to the FVAP requesting help to vote by absentee ballot. The FVAP verifies the voter's eligibility and forwards the information to local voting officials, who send out instructions, a ballot and a voting card.

The pilot aims to put that entire process online and make it at least as secure, Brunelli said. The system will use software developed by DOD to distribute voting materials and capture the ballots.

The pilot will secure the transactions using the Pentagon's public-key infrastructure, a system the military uses to send encrypted messages worldwide.

"The Pentagon would process the application the same as any: by making a determination about the validity of the absentee request based on criteria already established," said Paul Craft, manager of the voting system section in the Florida secretary of state's office.

"We'll set up an account on a file server in the county, and when [a user] comes in with an ID verified over the Internet, then we'll send him over the Internet in HTML form a page to make his selections and transmit it back to the county," Craft said.

Craft said Florida hopes to begin a pilot online voting project of its own this spring and will issue standards next month for HTML-based voting. State officials envision a system that deploys browser-equipped PCs at voting stations. Data would be transmitted to a local server, Craft said. This model could be used by voters from their homes or from PCs set up at malls or other convenient places.

But there are concerns that online voting could diminish access, especially among voters who cannot afford a computer, and hurt the integrity of the process overall.

Penelope Bonsall, director of the Office of Election Administration at the Federal Election Commission, said that while there has been serious thought given to online voting, security remains an issue, as does the lack of any controlled non-partisan poll workers.

But Brunelli said 43 states currently allow voting materials to be transmitted by fax, and there is no reason why voting online cannot be the next application of new technology.

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