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Thousands of overseas Americans are expected to be able to cast ballots from their home computers in the 2004 elections, the Pentagon said Monday. Military personnel and civilians alike will be eligible to take part in the federal government’s most ambitious experiment yet in Internet-based voting.

The project — known as the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment, or SERVE — builds on a smaller-scale effort in the 2000 elections. This time around, the system will incorporate digital certificates as an added security measure.

“Security is everyone’s first question about Internet voting, so we made security the driving factor in the SERVE system design,” Polli Brunelli, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, said in a written statement. “We are working closely with state and local election officials to build a secure system and ensure that the integrity of the electoral process is maintained.”

Although FVAP is part of the Defense Department, overseas civilians as well as military personnel will be allowed to register beginning next year, assuming their state and county back home are taking part in the federal program.

The voting system was drawn up by a government-industry team headed by Accenture, a consulting and technical services company, under FVAP’s direction. The Pentagon said FVAP expected at least 10 states to be represented in the experiment: Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Washington.

However, local legislative action is still needed before some of those states can take part.

One such state is Washington, where the required bill died during the regular session. However, legislators could revisit the subject during a special session due to begin this week, said Trova Hutchins, a spokeswoman for the Washington state secretary of state’s office.

“We’re hopeful they’re going to take up the issue again, but we’re still hanging,” she told MSNBC.com. “Our office supports the legislation because of the opportunity it provides.”

Postal-based absentee voting is already popular in Washington state: In the 2002 general election, 66 percent of the votes cast were absentee.

Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said the project’s biggest hurdle was satisfying state and local election officials.

“They have to buy in on this thing,” he told MSNBC.com, “because they’re the ones doing the counting and [have to] make sure it’s 100 percent secure.”

How it works
The congressionally mandated project builds on the Pentagon’s experience with the digital-signature program for federal employees known as Public Key Infrastructure, or PKI. Eligible voters or would-be voters (you can also register to vote using the system) would be issued digital signatures, which are already being distributed to military personnel under the PKI program. These signatures would be used to verify the identity of voters as they submit their ballots online.

Flood said he could not estimate how many voters might participate. He said “there is a potential for some 6 million voters” — but that figure takes in the entire overseas electorate, and only a fraction of the 6 million would satisfy the experiment’s eligibility requirements.

Just 84 voters participated in the Pentagon’s first e-voting experiment, in 2000. That effort cost $6.2 million, leading to criticism that the Pentagon was spending $74,000 on each ballot.

Skeptic speaks out 
Not everyone is sold on the idea of Internet voting, even when digital certificates are added to the system.

“This does not in any way guarantee that their ballots will be collected correctly on the other end,” said Rebecca Mercuri, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “All this digital signature and encryption does is protect the packet and authenticate it in the middle, while it’s in transit.”

Mercuri, a computer scientist who has long raised concerns about e-voting, pointed out that Internet balloting could be vulnerable to denial-of-service attacks and other computerized skulduggery as well as the problems that currently bedevil dedicated electronic voting systems.

“We don’t want our voting in our election system to turn into some hokey ‘American Idol’ thing,” she said. “What we want is a system where you can cast your votes secretly and securely, where they’re protected in the middle during sending, where they’re received correctly and also tabulated correctly.”

She pointed to the questions already being raised about electronic voting machines — including last year’s Florida voting controversies and concerns being raised in Wisconsin and California. Mercuri and other critics favor a system in which a paper ballot sheet is printed as a backup to the electronic system — and such a “paper trail” provision is contained in a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.

“There is a growing undercurrent of concern, not only among computer scientists, but also among individuals and state election officials who are very concerned that the integrity of the voting process would be compromised,” Mercuri said.

Michael Alvarez, a political science professor at the California Institute of Technology and co-director of the MIT-Caltech Voting Technology Project, said the SERVE system involved a “very high level of security” and would address a specific, “very disenfranchised” subset of eligible voters. Alvarez is part of a team that will evaluate how well next year’s e-voting experiment works out.

More information on the experiment is available at the SERVE Web site.

MSNBC’s Brock N. Meeks contributed to this report from Washington.

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