In a highly unusual pairing, the Republican and Democratic party organizations for citizens living abroad have banded together against the Pentagon's Internet voting program for the presidential election.
Concerns about the security of the online ballots could cast the entire election under a cloud of suspicion, they said in a joint letter urging a halt in the program. The letter released yesterday is being sent to several congressional committees.
"We do not want to undermine confidence in our system of voting by discovering some real or imagined fraud in the November balloting," wrote the leaders of Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad.
The partisan groups called their cooperation historic. They are joined in their opposition by the Association of Americans Resident Overseas, American Citizens Abroad and the Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas, which are sending a separate appeal to Congress and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"We've heard so much about the doubtful security of online voting, so we're concerned that we're going too fast," said Lucy Laederich, U.S. liaison for the women's clubs. "One day this might be absolutely wonderful. In the meantime, we might find ourselves with a kind of a super-2000 disaster, and people will think online voting will never be possible."
The opposition has prompted Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) to seek congressional allies to lobby Rumsfeld to stop the Internet vote for the presidential race.
Experiment suffers setbacks
The Pentagon's Federal Voting Assistance Program is sponsoring a $22 million Internet voting experiment. Fifty counties in seven states have signed up, and about 100,000 ballots are expected to be cast. The program is open to all military and civilian overseas residents from those counties.
The online experiment suffered a setback a week ago when four computer security specialists asked to review the program released a report saying that the Internet and personal computers running Microsoft Windows are so inherently insecure that online voting would be subject to hacking. They urged a halt in the program for fear that ballots collected online could undermine the integrity of the election. The four were part of a group of 10 academics and other experts involved in a $1.8 million review of the program under the leadership of R. Michael Alvarez, co-director of the CalTech-MIT/Voting Technology Project and co-author of the book "Point, Click & Vote: The Future of Internet Voting." Alvarez said he wants the full group to issue a report after the election to evaluate how the program performed.
The project will help voters who have a hard time getting and casting ballots and will provide guidance for developing a secure broader system, said Accenture eDemocracy Services, the consultant developing the Pentagon system.
"The group's decision is premature," spokesman James McAvoy said. "Up to 50 percent of all servicemen and women and citizens living abroad find it difficult if not impossible to have their vote counted each election year. This is a serious problem that deserves serious consideration."
Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said it will continue reviewing security concerns but intends to go forward with the program.
Not yet certified
The Internet project has not received formal certification required for all voting equipment, so it is not being used for Tuesday's primary in South Carolina. Depending on when certification is completed, it could be used for subsequent primaries in Utah, Florida, North Carolina and Arkansas. It is expected to be used for the general election in all of those states, as well as in Washington and Hawaii.
The letters from the groups abroad emphasized that they are eager to facilitate overseas voting. In interviews, they praised the Federal Voting Assistance Program's Web site, which has information and a form to let them request paper absentee ballots.
"If the request for getting a ballot is expedited, that's great," said Ryan King, speaking for Republicans Abroad. "But the actual ballot, the actual voting, we have strong concerns about that. The security concerns outweigh any potential convenience."
Joseph Smallhoover, former chairman of Democrats Abroad, said there are about 6.5 million civilians overseas and 500,000 service members and their dependents.
"We would love to have a system that makes it easier for the people overseas to vote easily," he said, "but if it's going to raise serous questions about the validity of the election itself, we'd rather have a system with a paper trail and not subject to serious doubt. We doubt that the nation wants to go through the same sort of turmoil that we did in 2000."
Overseas ballots arriving after Election Day were a significant part of the Florida election debacle. That election led to national reforms for more reliable voting equipment as well as better ways for gathering votes from abroad.