I am on my way to Munich, as I post this, for the 2010 UOCAVA Summit.  The OSDV Foundation is a co-host this year, and we’re coordinating the technology track of this 3-day gathering focused on the issues and opportunities for our overseas voters.  This year’s event is arguably the most important UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) gathering since the passage of the Act in 1986.  Last November, Congress and the President brought UOCAVA into the 21st century by passing the MOVE Act into law – which is somewhat like an amendment to UOCAVA.

And 2 very important outcomes will be showcased this week in Munich.

2010SummitAs an aside, you may be asking why Munich and not, say, Washington D.C.?  Good question (especially as I spend 17 hours of my day traveling from the west coast to Munich).  But there is rhyme and reason here.  Every election year in the U.S. (which means every other year) the Overseas Vote Foundation produces the UOCAVA Summit in Europe to bring together all of our fellow citizens and their organizations stationed abroad to learn the latest developments in efforts to include Americans overseas in the processes of democracy state-side.  This includes large corporations with major installations in Europe and abroad, as well as NGOs and of course, the Military.  What you may not realize is [a] there are over 6 million Americans abroad, and [b] recent studies, which catalyzed the MOVE Act, indicate that as many as 1 in 4 overseas citizens are unable to participate in U.S. elections for a variety of reasons, but due mostly to verifying their registration status and/or receiving and casting a ballot in time to be counted.  So, this being a mid-term election year, the Summit is in Europe, and this time, Munich.

Now, what about those two outcomes?

The first major outcome of the MOVE Act to play prominently in this year’s conference is one of the fundamental mandates of the Act that states in relevant part, that elections jurisdictions shall provide a digital means to obtain a blank ballot for any overseas voter at least 45 days before an election.

At first glance, you might say, “Duh, of course, like, aren’t we already doing that?”  And the answer is, by and large, no.  But in this always-on digital age, making blank official ballots available for download, casting (filling out by marking choices), and then returning (through expedited mail means), seems to be the proverbial no-brainer.  And now, federal law makes it mandatory.

Of course, caution: we don’t exactly want an unchecked number of blank ballots loose in cyberspace either (I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to realize why that might be a bad idea).  So, we need to ensure that we only issue ballots to a qualified recipient, and in fact, each qualified recipient returns one, and only one completed ballot.  Yes, yes, I know it is “block and tackle” sort of stuff.  But the devil is in the digital details.

Accordingly, there will be much to discuss about implementing MOVE Act mandates, particularly blank ballot delivery by digital means (read: downloadable, probably a PDF).  And, of course, the TrustTheVote Project is excited about this, because there is an opportunity to showcase the work underway on open source solutions to design, generate, and distribute blank ballots (that would be our Ballot Design Studio component of the TTV Elections and Voting Technology Framework — incidentally, we’re moving so fast that we have yet to update a bunch of documentation on the Ballot Design Studio project component on the Wiki… yes we need more help!).

The good news for our fellow overseas citizens is that this is a funded mandate, and all states and elections jurisdictions are hard at work determining how to meet the mandate.  And there’s more good news because at least a few states are already there.   Non-profit organizations (NGOs) as well as the Department of Defense through the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) are also working hard to make services available ASAP.  So, it will happen.  And perhaps the OSDV Foundation open source technology – a publicly owned asset – will have a chance to play a role in that work.

There are many who are energized to make this as easy as possible in a digital age.  And to some, providing blank ballots in a downloadable PDF is merely a start to bringing the processes of democracy into the digital age.

Therein lies the 2nd prominent outcome to be showcased this week.

You see, rightly or wrongly (and the arguments both ways are non-trivial) some believe that if the blank ballot is available digitally, there is no reason why we cannot cut the cycle time of overseas voting completely by making it possible to fill out the ballot digitally and then returning it by digital means.

The Department of Defense, for example, argues from the simple point-of-view of risk management.  To many in the military, the benefits of a far greater probability of having their ballot received and counted far outweigh the risk of a ballot being read, intercepted, or even hacked (let alone revealing the identity of the casting citizen). A military statesman, whom I have a great deal of respect for, points out that shooting with “live ballots” is nothing compared to shooting with live bullets, so this is an easy decision (i.e., to adopt as digital a process as soon as possible to ensure speedy delivery and return of ballots).

For other overseas citizens, whose mail services are far better and accessibility challenges are far fewer, the digital means to complete the “ballot transaction” represents a powerful convenience given their remote (absentee) status.

But this opens “Pandora’s Internet Voting Box” to the opponents of this proposed digital efficiency, because if digital ballot casting is extended to our military, and then expanded to include overseas voters, goes the argument, then every absentee voter on the planet (including those merely “out of town” on elections day) will cry foul if they too are not allowed to participate in this highly efficient 21st century manner.

Then the horns kick in, and my shoes start to squeak, because this is a slippery slope, and gosh darn it, this sort of thing could lead to Internet voting!  That is the 2nd outcome of this week’s conference: the great debate on whether public packet-switched networks should be used to transact ballot data in public elections.

At times, we’ve alluded to our position on that matter in blog posts and other content here on the Blog and our project Wiki.  And I will leave it as an exercise for the bored and curious to “look it up.”  What I will say is this: contrary to several concerns raised, I signed up for, and remain committed (with a fiduciary sense of responsibility) to moderating a fair and balanced debate on Internet Voting or what we’ve coined ‘iVoting.”  And I have no intention whatsoever of attempting to sway the debate in one direction or another, favour one side or another, or allow my opinions to color my commentary or line of questioning.

It promises to be a lively discussion.

To some, the use of the Internet in public elections is inevitable as we progress into the digital age.  Maybe so.  And to several European nations, this step has already been successfully achieved.  Bear in mind that there are historical and key cultural differences between the USA and Europe in matters of public elections making adoption of methods like vote-by-mail as well the Internet both palatable and plausible.

To others, this is a nightmare unfolding before their eyes.  These opponent activists have relied on academics and other domain experts’ assertions, observations, and statements, which are necessarily technically accurate.  The (valid) concerns of these technically precise professionals have fueled the fury within opponents who reasonably fear for the integrity of our elections, if they are conducted across a digital means where compromises and vulnerabilities are an inherent part of the architecture of packet-switched networks.  And caution should be exercised.

Does this mean that the notion of using the power and capability of the Internet to enable this important aspect of our digital democracy should be outlawed, forbidden, and eliminated from consideration?

Is there a middle ground that provides a way forward wherein carefully supervised experimentation, research, and further development into designs and deployments that address the persistent integrity issues?

Should we realize and respect that going forward democracies in a digital age must provide a plurality of means by which its citizens can participate in elections, whether that be by mail, in person at a polling place, partially through digital means, or entirely on-line?

Or are the integrity issues raised largely unwarranted in the face of technical capabilities, processes, policies, or procedures that are being drowned in the calls for a legislative mandate to make illegal the use of the Internet in any capacity in public elections?  (Note: keep it on the down low, but packet-switched networks have been used to back-haul aggregate election data for years.)

All of these are the questions and issues are being discussed (and debated) this week in Munich at the 2010 UOCAVA Summit.  And they are being driven by both [a] the passage of the MOVE Act into U.S. law and [b] the full throttle intent by some groups to advance all of the potential capabilities of digital delivery of ballots for (at least) overseas voters.  Stay tuned.

Cheers
GAM|out