North Carolina: Taking the Lead in Overseas Voting and … E-mail?

I got a seemingly simple question recently, that came up along with some news from North Carolina. In a Greensboro newspaper editorial Defending Democracy. NC state legislator  Grier Martin was quoted as eloquently saying: “If we do not make it possible for the folks defending our democracy to participate in our democracy, what does that say? If you’re risking your life to defend our democracy, we should bend over backward and spare no expense to make it possible to vote.”

I share the sentiment, but not the idea discussed further in the article — that NC election officials should enable military overseas voters to re turn marked ballots by email. Now, please note that NC is already rolling out a system in which blank vote-by-mail (VBM)ballots are distributed by email to overseas military voters. Internet distribution of blank VBM ballots gets them to overseas voters immediately, rather than waiting for paper ballots to arrive by mail, and often to the wrong place because the military voter has changed locale. But returning marked ballots over the Internet – that’s another story.

That brings me to the question: if it’s OK to email blank ballots to voters, what is the problem with voters emailing marked ballots? That’s the question that arose when some of my NC election integrity friends followed up with some election officials there. To some readers no doubt this seems a sensible question, while to others it may seem obvious. But that’s not my point today. Today, I am reflecting on the challenges of concise, accurate communication about “email and Internet” with election folks who are not networking technology experts. Consider one snappy answer that I came up with:

A emailed blank ballot is a public document that anyone can see; a marked ballot, in conjunction with information identifying the voter, is an intensely private document that if mis-handled can break voter anonymity and ballot integrity.

That may be fine as far as it goes, but it isn’t complete or accurate, and could be misleading. As one of our tech advisory board pointed out, it ignores threats to blank ballot distribution. Also, many of terms or implications can be confusing: anyone can see email? what is ballot integrity? voter identification?

But here is the conundrum. To be more complete, accurate and inclusive, a lot more explanation is required, and I suspect that the amount of explanation would run right off the end of the interest and attention span of all but the most dyed in the wool election geeks. I would  illustrate with an alternate version of that snappy answer, except that after I wrote it, I realized that it is longer than this blog post, and takes more than a couple minutes to read or hear. And if even a modestly expanded answer is about the length of this blog post, you’re probably not going to remember the longer answer tomorrow, unless you are both an election geek and a technologist.

Am I kvetching? Maybe a bit, but I also want to once again make the point, so central to TrustTheVote, that any application of technology to voting simply has to be an ongoing conversation and collaboration with the whole stakeholder community. Neither quick Q-and-As nor lengthy disquisitions can take the place of true engagement, where each party has much to learn from the others. That stated, if you have a good snappy answer to the question, I’d like to hear it!


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