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

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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.


II. Election News This Week

  • Next week's hearing on Charlie White's eligibility to serve as Indiana Secretary of State will be streamed online, the Indiana Recount Commission decided this week. White had asked in a motion filed last week that TV cameras be kept out of the hearing. His attorney had claimed that TV cameras might make witnesses uncomfortable sharing personal information, such as where they slept at particular times. The commission said today that White's hearing will last only one day. Each side will get four hours to present its case. The commission will rule on the Democrats' election challenge by June 30. White’s criminal trial is scheduled for Aug. 8. If he's convicted of any of the seven felony charges pending against him, he will be removed from office. In a somewhat strange twist of events in the situation this week, White’s mother Margaret White, announced plans to sue the prosecuting attorney in her son’s case for $750,000 or more for “emotional distress”.
  • A Colorado grand jury cleared Saguache County Clerk and Recorder Melinda Myers of any criminal wrongdoing in the November election, according to a report released through the Colorado Attorney General's Office this week. "The results of the 2010 general election were a product of the votes of the citizens of Saguache County and were not affected by individual violations of the procedural rules by the clerk and others," the report concluded. Myers said in a written statement she hoped the findings would put the election controversy to rest and provide citizens with confidence that the will of the voters was reflected in the election. Controversy flared over the election after personnel in Myers office conducted a second count of the ballots because of an operating error with the county's vote scanning software. Not everyone is happy with the results of the grand jury though, including an Aspen voting rights activist who said that the grand jury did not have all the necessary information to form a proper conclusion.
  • Voter ID update: This week the North Carolina Senate approved voter ID legislation — that includes photo ID — along a party line vote. The legislation now moves back to the House for an agreement on minor changes. The bill is expected to get final approval this week before moving to the governor’s desk. It is unclear if Gov. Bev Perdue will sign the legislation. Although both the House and Senate in Missouri have approved photo ID legislation, at press time Gov. Jay Nixon had yet to sign it. Nixon is on the record as being opposed to photo ID, however the legislation also includes allowing for early voting in the Show Me state — something that Nixon supports. Voter ID legislation won final approval from the Alabama Senate on the last day of the legislative session. Although Alabama voters have long had to show some type of ID at the polls, beginning in 2014 — if Gov. Robert Bentley signs the legislation — voters will have to show a government-issued photo ID.
  • News of the obvious: According to The Monitor, Voters seemed reluctant to head to the polls this week in Mercedes, Texas after an incident last week in which officers arrested a man for having a gun at the location. Poll workers reported 54 people had voted as of 2 p.m. Monday. Previous days had seen an average of 96 to 99 voters by that same time. Police officers have been stationed at the doors to City Hall since the incident, but there have been no more problems. It is illegal to have a gun within 1,000 feet of a polling location on Election Day or during early voting.
  • Personnel news:After 26 years serving the city of Kenai, Alaska, City Clerk Carol Freas is retiring. Part of Freas’ job is to oversee the cities elections including most recently a move to electronic acceptance of absentee ballots. In the lower 48, longtime deputy Village clerk Sue Glavin is set to retire after 28 years of helping the residents by doing everything from answering phones to helping with voter registration and absentee voting. Patrick Kriner, chairman of the Lucas County Board of Elections, officially resigned Wednesday, leaving the panel without a Republican member and without a quorum to conduct business.


III. Opinions 

National: Election reform, II, III; Voter ID, II; National Popular Vote

Alabama: Military and overseas voters

Arizona: Instant-runoff voting; Voter ID

Florida: Hillsborough County; Election reform

Indiana: Election reform; Charlie White; Election irregularities

Kansas: Kris Kobach

Maine: Election reform, II, III, IV; Voter registration; Same-day registration

Minnesota: Ranked-choice voting

Mississippi: Voter ID

Missouri: Cost of elections

Nevada: Election consolidation; North Las Vegas election

North Carolina: Voter ID; Election reform, II

Ohio: Voting stickers; Election reform

Pennsylvania: Voter ID, II

Tennessee: Rutherford County

West Virginia: Voter rolls



V. Job Openings