Military e-voting plan wins backers

A year ago, Steve Katsurinis watched as ballots mailed in by military voters from overseas were thrown "by the fistful" into the trash.

It was wrenching, Katsurinis said. As vice chairman of the Alexandria, Va., electoral board and a voting rights lawyer, he is more accustomed to fighting to ensure that as many voters as possible can exercise their franchise to vote.

But there, in the midst of one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history, absentee ballots were being discarded. State law forbids accepting votes after an election deadline, Katsurinis explained, and delays in mail delivery prevented many military ballots from arriving on time.

The scenario was repeated in many states. Things were especially intense in Florida, the battleground state that decided the election. There, courts were asked to rule on whether more than 1,500 questionable absentee ballots from military voters could be counted.

The fiasco convinced Katsurinis that it's time to permit military personnel to vote via the Internet. "The technology is safe and secure," he said, and vote delivery is instantaneous.

Congress agrees, at least to the extent that it ordered in the fiscal 2002 Defense authorization bill "a demonstration project" of electronic voting by troops based overseas for the midterm elections in 2002.

"Deployment overseas should not result in disenfranchisement for soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel," said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.). "I am convinced that we have the technological capability to solve the problems we experienced in the last election."

Dicks, who has six military bases in his district, notes that he has "relied on military votes all my career."

The Senate has passed its version of the bill, but the House has yet to pass its version. A year from now, when voters will decide which party controls the House and the Senate and who will be governor in 36 states, tens of thousands of troops stationed abroad might be able to vote online, said Jim Adler, chief executive officer of the online voting company VoteHere Inc.

By the next presidential election, in 2004, the number of military personnel able to vote electronically could be in the hundreds of thousands, said Adler, whose company hopes to be involved in next year's demonstration.

The technology for secure, accurate Internet voting exists today, Adler said. VoteHere routinely conducts online elections for corporations and has conducted election tests in several states and foreign countries.

DOD's Federal Voting Assistance Program conducted a limited test of Internet voting in the 2000 election and declared it a success. About 85 voters based at military installations in the United States and overseas sent ballots via the Internet to election officials in Florida, Utah, Texas and South Carolina.

For U.S. troops, desktop computers or electronic kiosks would serve as voting booths at overseas bases or on deployed ships. The military's extensive communications capability will ensure that votes get transmitted to the United States from anywhere in the world. Encryption would ensure that arriving votes have not been tampered with, and an audit trail would make the election results fully verifiable, Adler said.

Military personnel "on the front lines deserve absolute assurance that their votes count," said Maj. Gen. Warner Sumpter, assistant adjutant general of the Maryland Army National Guard. Without Internet voting, troops mobilized for the war against terrorism could be facing "massive disenfranchisement" in congressional and local elections next year, he said.

The biggest challenge will be preparing localities to accept electronic votes and ensuring that local ballots are available in electronic form for deployed voters. Nationwide, there are about 300,000 local precincts, each with its own ballot, Adler said.

"The military is a perfect constitu.ency" for electronic voting, Adler said. Besides being equipped with the computers and communications capabilities needed for online voting, surveys show they want to vote. Last year, 75 percent of military personnel voted, compared to about half of other eligible Americans.

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