GAO: Security hinders absentee voting programs

Elections: DOD Expands Voting Assistance to Military Absentee Voters, but Challenges Remain

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Security concerns continue to hamper the Defense Department's efforts to provide electronic registration and voting systems for federal absentee voters, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

DOD's Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) has developed plans for an Internet-based registration and voting system, looking for ways to make it easier for service members and other federal employees stationed away from their home district to participate in elections. But security concerns have stymied even the most limited efforts to test such an approach, the GAO report states.

For example, the department set up the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE) for the 2004 election, as directed by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2002. DOD officials had hoped to have citizens from seven states participate that year, but the experiment never moved beyond the review stage.

In January 2004, four members of a review group that DOD assembled distributed a report stating that potential security problems left SERVE vulnerable to attack. "Because DOD did not want to call into question the integrity of the votes that would have been case via SERVE, they decided to shut it down prior to its use," according to GAO.

Nevertheless, the idea of Internet voting still appeals to many absentee voters, GAO auditors found.

"Eighty-seven percent of service members who responded to our focus group survey said they were likely to vote over the Internet if security was guaranteed," the report states. "However, FVAP has not developed a system that would protect the security and privacy of absentee ballots cast over the Internet."

The wide range of state laws also hampers DOD's efforts. Another 2004 initiative, the Interim Voting Assistance System, was ready for the fall elections, but the user base was limited to 108 counties across eight states, partly because of conflicting legislative restrictions and procedural requirements in many other states.

State laws are not the only obstacles. "Although state law may allow electronic transmission of voting materials, including voted ballots, the 10,500 local election jurisdictions must be willing and equipped to accommodate this technology," the GAO report states.

In both initiatives, "security concerns prevented expanded use of these projects," GAO concluded.

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