Elections and the Internet: What’s Helpful, and What’s Not

There is some interesting recent “Internet Voting” news from North Carolina and Georgia. The contrast is in ideal example of different ways of incorporating the Internet into  election technology, sometimes helpful, sometimes not.

From North Carolina, the news is on voting by eMail. This is explicitly permitted by NC law, and my NC colleagues tell me that state officials will be encouraging overseas military voters to return a ballot as PDF file attachment to eMail, during elections this year.  Why now?  Well, thanks to the MOVE Act of last year, it’s now common practice to deliver blank ballots to overseas voters, typically as a PDF either sent to the voter by email, or downloaded by the voter from a state government Web site.  That’s great, because for many voters, there simply isn’t time to wait for the paper ballot to arrive, mark it, and send it back via postal mail.  Now that the ballot’s outbound journey can be digital, though, there are still people who are in a situation where they doubt that postal delivery will get their ballot back in time to be counted.

So, a seemingly simple and obvious solution is to have the ballot’s return journey be digital as well.  But eMail is really not a great way to do that.  One could say an awful lot about all the various problems, but let’s just observe that with eMail the voter is surrendering anonymity of their ballot and the integrity of the ballot en route.  On that route, the eMail message passes through several computers, whose operators can easily read it, and modify it or throw it away if they don’t like it, all without the sender or receiver detecting it.  (For a good video explanation of this, see Andrew Appel’s Internet Voting primer, starting at about 2:15 into the playback.)

Now, I recognize that there are military voters who really are in a situation where there isn’t time for even a one-way postal journey of a ballot.  They may not have been in a position (literally) to download the blank ballot as soon as it was available.  They may be in a situation where the first of the return post is military transport where bullets have priority over ballots and there is no assurance on when the ballot will get to where it can enter the military or local postal service.

But there has to be a better way than essentially telling these voters to either take the chances with lateness of postal return, or give up the secrecy of their ballot and take their chances with the ballot being modified or blocked en route. What would a better way be? Well, the news from GA is of some legislation regarding a pilot where overseas and military voters obtain a blank ballot and return it, digitally.  The legislation doesn’t say how, but it does nicely summarize a lot of requirements for authentication, privacy, anonymity, and integrity of marked ballots returned digitally.  So it’s an encouraging starting point for something that would be better.  We’ll have to stay tuned to see what GA’s future pilot efforts can learn from NC’s present.


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