October 1, 2004

Military, other voters abroad, face technical and privacy challenges

Author: Jay Lyman

The folks who defend democracy and help make American jobs and dollars in foreign markets deserve to vote as much as anyone, but during the past year leading up to the November national election, these military and other out-of-country voters have had a harder time than anyone.

First they were told that the system that was supposed to help them easily register and cast their votes was too insecure for them to use. More recently, some military voters were told they could use an email-to-fax-to-local official electronic transmission process to cast their ballots, but it would mean sacrificing their voter privacy and employing a questionable procedure. Another glitch, and it appears to be just that, prevented U.S. citizens abroad from using some foreign ISPs to access voter registration and information sites, thanks to the Department of Defense's Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP).

While defense officials urge military personnel to stick to the postal delivery of their absentee ballots, the foibles and foul-ups for these voters continued last week when the State of Oregon revealed it had already mailed ballots that included Ralph Nader to 6,000 military and other absentee voters abroad. The independent candidate was barred from the Beaver State's ballot by the state's Supreme Court for inadequate signature documentation after the absentee ballots were printed.

And while officials in California, Maryland, and even voting fiasco central, Florida, are pushing for voter-verified, printed paper receipts with touchscreen machines in case a recount of a contest is necessary, American citizens across the globe have had little help in maintaining their democratic voice through vote.

It started early this year in January, when the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE) system was found to be totally non-open source and wide open to assault by fraud, thanks to the closed code and general insecurity of the Internet.

As the number of military personnel abroad increased to at least 140,000, and as the fall election neared, FVAP and secretaries of state from Missouri and North Dakota unveiled a plan to allow combat personnel from those states to vote from the field by having ballots scanned and emailed to the U.S. Department of Defense and then transmitted yet again via fax to local election officials.

Even though absentee voting began last week, computer security and e-voting experts agreed that the electronic transmission process was questionable, complaining of the soldiers' forfeiture of privacy, the multiple transmissions, unclear audit trail, insecurity of the software and the Internet, and the handing off of votes to the DoD, which is an arm of the executive branch of government.

In response to some of those questions, and to concerns about "command influence," DoD spokesperson Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said the electronic transmission voting would rely on WinFax Pro 10.0 software (a commercial product released more than four years ago), adding that the entire session would be archived.

Krenke, who referred to directives prohibiting undue influence by military commanders, said she could not speculate on the number of men and women from Missouri and North Dakota who will be using the voting option, but a representative of Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt's office said the state expects about 3,000 of the votes. The same official said that the fax transmissions from abroad would be handled for DoD by Omega Technologies, but referred other questions to FVAP, which did not respond for comment.

Krenke, who was unsure whether the original email votes to DoD from military personnel would be logged, said officials prefer that all of the military voters request absentee ballots and return them in time for U.S. postal delivery.

That might be easier than it sounds, as military and other overseas voters faced another obstacle recently with reports that FVAP sites offering registration information and forms were unavailable for Americans in China, France, Japan, Spain, and other places where ISP access to the government's voting sites was denied. The forms are available through other sources, but October registration deadlines for November voting combined with the site blockage caused frustration for many of these voters, according to groups and sites such as OverseasVote.com,a partisan Democratic group that provides information and assistance on voting out of country.

Despite media reports that foreign access was denied intentionally to block hackers, the DoD's Krenke said the sites were being blocked in error. Other blocks were turned off earlier this year, but Krenke said one router was not changed, causing the FVAP site blockage to continue. The blocks were removed and the DoD believes the sites should be accessible now for Americans accessing the materials from foreign lands.

Nevertheless, if there was any ideal demographic for a secure e-voting option that did not necessarily rely on the Internet -- the military has its own lines of data communication -- the voters who are away from their homes are it. Unfortunately, it appears the DoD, state and local governments, and local election officials have failed to make the fundamental American right to vote more accessible to the nation's defenders of freedom, movers of industry, and global explorers.


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