I. In Focus This Wee
Takoma Park, Md. tests online absentee voting
City hopes to have program in place for fall elections, but more testing needed
Takoma Park has never been a city to shy away from trying something new. The small Maryland city is a nuclear-free zone. Non-citizen legal immigrants are allowed to vote in local elections and the city operates its own compost recycling program and silo for corn-burning stoves.
It’s ready to take the plunge into voting technology as well. Takoma Park is experimenting with online voting, hoping to pave the way for use in elections.
A small group of students, led by George Washington University computer science professor Poorvi Vora, spearheaded a test for online absentee voting in Takoma Park in partnership with Scantegrity and Remotegrity.
On a blistering hot day in this suburb of Washington, D.C,, 16 people participated in the trial of the system, using computers within the cool confines of the city’s Community Center.
The test was aimed at gauging user response to online voting instructions and the usability of the system interface. The test was based on Scantegrity’s system previously used in the city’s 2009 elections.
Under the system, an absentee voter would receive a package at home with two envelopes. In one envelope there would be a sealed paper ballot which the voter could fill out and mail in as is traditionally done.
Should an absentee voter choose to vote online, the second envelope would contain scratch-off codes which correspond to the voter’s ballot. Using those codes, the voter would visit a website and follow step-by-step instructions and complete their absentee ballot online.
After casting their vote, absentee voters would then visit another website to verify their vote with codes assigned to candidates on their physical copy of the ballot. From there, they can "lock in" their vote or override their vote via scratch-off code if they see an error.
Those participating in the test were provided with a package identical to what they would receive at home should they wish to vote absentee.
Each trial participant — many of whom were senior citizens who had been participating in an art class in another part of the facility — was asked to complete two surveys following the test.
According to Vora, they received positive feedback, though some participants did ask about the security of the approach.
One tester, Mary said "it was easy to use, but the paper instructions were somewhat confusing." Another called the trial "a great idea" and said that she was "pleased to be taking part."
“Right now, things are looking promising, however more testing is needed,” said Takoma Park City Clerk Jessie Carpenter.
Although the City Board of Elections ideally aims to have this system in place for fall elections, Carpenter said that greater security testing needs to be done and some kinks in the system that arose during testing — duplicate paper ballots and codes — need to be worked out.
Takoma Park is of course not the first jurisdiction to test online absentee voting. In the spring 2010, five West Virginia counties piloted an online absentee voting program for their military and overseas voters and later that same year, the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics (DCBOEE) tested an online absentee voting program which it opened up to hackers to test the security of the system.
Unlike other previous pilot programs that had overseas voters casting ballots from specific locations abroad, the West Virginia pilot allowed overseas voters to request online credentials — user name and password — and then cast their ballot on any computer using a secure military-style encryption connection. The state worked with Scytl, USA and Everyone Counts, Inc. to create the secure online system. Very few problems were reported with the test.
In contrast, the D.C. test was almost immediately hacked by a team of University of Michigan students led by Professor J. Alex Halderman. The team retrieved user access codes, changed votes and even set the system to play the University’s fight song when test voters submitted their ballot.
The difference between the West Virginia pilot program and the D.C. test is that the District’s Board of Elections used open source programming to specifically test the security.
“End to end integrity is the holy grail of online voting,” said Paul Stenbjorn, DCBOEE’s director of information services. “Voters have the expectation that secure transactions happen online,”
David Chaum, a cryptography and computer science expert working on Scantegrity argued that, “any voting system that relies on the Internet as the only way for voters to get their votes in is not ready for large-scale use in public sector elections.”
Stenbjorn said that though serious security concerns must be addressed, technology solutions are within reach but are not currently deployed.
“We remain aware that there are issues,” she said. “The Net is a vulnerable place.” Vora said. She went on to explain that she is “looking into keeping information off network and offline” as much as possible by physically moving data off of the server.
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