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DoD to Test Online Absentee Voting

By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 25, 1999 – It may be the wave of the future for participating in the electoral process, and DoD is leading the way.

DoD’s Federal Voting Assistance Program and five states have begun a pilot project for the year 2000 presidential election that will allow service members to cast their absentee ballots over the Internet instead of through the mail.


The program is primarily aimed at making it easier for service members stationed away from their home states to cast their ballots, according to Polly Brunelli, voting program director.


“Our men and women are deployed to combat zones. They’re in disaster areas. They’re also serving aboard surface vessels and submarines, as well as in remote areas where mail delivery is unpredictable,” Brunelli said. “So this sometimes makes absentee voting particularly challenging.”


Indeed, she pointed out that a 1996 post-election survey revealed approximately one-fourth of all military voters said they did not vote in the elections because their ballots did not arrive in time to be counted.


Approximately 350 volunteer service members scattered throughout the world will take part in the project. The five states that have agreed to participate are Florida, Missouri, Texas, South Carolina and Utah. Later this year, working with these states and the individual services, FVAP will identify possible participants and offer them the opportunity to take part. Registration will begin in January 2000. The only requirements for service members are that they are 18 or older, be registered voters in their home states and that they have access to a personal computer with Internet connection.


Brunelli said a key concern that will be tested in the pilot project is voter confidentiality. DoD will provide software to participants that will give them access to the Pentagon’s public-key infrastructure; a system the military uses to send encrypted messages worldwide.


She explained that all voting transactions would travel through the secure “pipeline” to the local election official in the voter’s home state and jurisdiction. The voter’s ballot will arrive in what Brunelli referred to as an electronic “security envelope.” The local election official, in turn, will use a software program to separate the ballot from the voter’s identification, which should guarantee the same privacy all voters receive.


Brunelli sees the pilot project as the logical continuation of other initiatives during this decade to make voting easier for service members, their families and civilian employees away from their home states. For example, in 1990, during Operation Desert Storm, FVAP worked with the states to allow voters to receive and submit their ballots by fax. Forty-four states now allow absentee voting by fax.


The success of that effort, she explained, prompted the current pilot project using the Internet.


“We went to state and local government officials and addressed the questions of how can we better respond to our military absentee voter? How can we be more effective and efficient? We’ve done all of these other things, but we’re still experiencing problems with ballot transit time,” Brunelli said. “And we decided voting over the Internet would provide prompt response time while solving the ballot transit problems.”


Following the 2000 elections, DoD and the five states involved will examine the success of the pilot project. Among the issues that will be studied will be the integrity of the process – or what Brunelli referred to as “one person, one vote” – ease of use and response time, and overall security of the process.


“We’ll be compiling data not only from the voter’s point of view, but from the local election officials point of view, as well,” Brunelli said. The findings will be compiled in early 2001 and shared with all states.


And ultimately, it’s the states themselves that control whether Internet voting services are available to service members, Brunelli pointed out.


“They have to have the legislation in place to allow it, as well as the technical staff and physical surroundings, such as a secure room for the server and the systems involved,” she said. “Almost all states were represented when we discussed this pilot program. They all have interest. The challenges [after the pilot project] are to make it a broader program – to get legislation in place to allow voting over the Internet. And we’re here to facilitate that process.”

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