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electionlineWeekly — June 28, 2012

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

New web tool makes absentee voting easier
U.S. Vote Foundation provides state-specific info online

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With more and more people choosing alternative methods to casting their ballot than at a polling place on election day — the U.S. Election Assistance Commission estimated that 23.7 million voted absentee in 2008 — making sure voters have access to what they need to do so has become a top priority.

This month, the U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote) launched an online absentee ballot tool that allows U.S. voters anywhere in the world to download and complete a state-specific absentee ballot request.

“We created this tool so that anyone who wishes to vote can be assisted - whether it be a traveling executive, a working parent, a home-bound person, or a college student away from home,” said US Vote President and CEO Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “The point of our services is access.  We want to make sure all Americans are equipped with the tools they need to vote, from the polling place to the kitchen table.”

The web tool allows voters to either create an account for future use, or fill out the required information as a one-time user. The online form asks basic voter information and then generates a state-specific form populated with the necessary information that the voter then prints, signs and mails to the address provided.

Dzieduszycka-Suinat said that part of her inspiration for working on a tool like this is the lack of publicly available innovative voter services in the U.S.

“All the organizations out there now need new and better tools,” she said. “You can’t stop at a widget. A widget is one tiny piece of the voting pie.”

Electionline.org gave it a whirl and it’s quite easy to use. The only quibble we would have is that it asked us if we wanted to vote absentee for a special election that happened more than year ago [Ed. Note: A represenative from U.S. Vote pointed out that they cannot alter the forms provided to them by state--in this case District--officials].

Dzieduszycka-Suinat noted that on the backend of the web tool it is quick to make changes to any of the forms and her team has worked with state and local officials to make those changes when necessary.

She said that while U.S. Vote did not work directly with state and local elections officials to create this tool, many of them did review the tool after it was complete and offered suggestions and corrections.

U.S. Vote is the first nongovernmental organization known to provide an online tool such as this.

“We are spearheading the modernization of domestic absentee ballot request,” said Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “This technology will improve the quality of absentee ballot requests, which will also assist election officials across the country.”

While all of the information in the absentee voter web tool — there is also a voter registration tool — is currently available on a multitude of other web sources, Dzieduszycka-Suinat pointed out that it’s often difficult for voters to find.

“Our added value is that we have hunters and gatherers that go around and find it,” she said.

Whether or not a new web tool such as this will help with turnout remains to be seen. Paul Gronke director of the Early Voting Information Center noted that the major administrative impacts on turnout are same-day and election-day registration as well as election day vote centers.

“A site like this is very useful, but I suspect is used primarily by those who are already interested and motivated,” Gronke said.

Even though he’s not sure how much a web tool like this might increase turnout, Gronke does see it as the first of many steps to make voting more accessible to voters.

“I think the future will hold more creative partnerships between private or non-profit groups like AVF, OVF, and Pew's Voting Information Project and state and local elections offices, who are facing serious budgetary limitations,” Gronke said. “The challenge will be to assure that these websites retain their non-partisan flavor, a path that has been difficult to navigate in the past decade.”

As with any online tool, there are always questions about security. Dzieduszycka-Suinat said that security is always one of their forefront issues and that the they do a number of things to mitigate the risk to the voter such as sessions that timeout if someone steps away from a computer, none of the forms are stored on US Vote’s servers and that none of the sensitive information like dates of birth or social security information is stored even if a voter creates an account.

While the feedback from the elections community has been generally positive, there are some concerns that like almost anything else, this web tool, in the hands of the wrong people, could be abused.

“Obviously is that there could be those out there who would misdirect people; they could set up a dummy site or alternate site that takes someone away from the legit site like this one or like the county site,” said Pamela Smith, director of Verified Voting. “Just like with offering a portal for Internet voting, that portal could be spoofed and someone misdirected by an email campaign, say, to a different (and malicious) portal, offering another way to disenfranchise voters. “

Smith noted that that's true about county sites as well and that there's nothing inherent in a site like this that would make it especially vulnerable.

“Misinformation campaigns will occur; this site does provide contact information to the actual election officials, so you can make sure you're getting the right info.

They also direct you to the state-specific form for registration. Those are good positives, in my view.”

News Update: Last week’s electionlineWeekly focused on the impacts the High Park Fire may have on the election process in Larimer County, Colo. Unfortunately since we first reported that story, not only has the High Park Fire become more dangerous, but other fires in the state impacted Tuesday’s primary.

In El Paso County, election results were delayed because the county’s main ballot counting center is located near the park where the Waldo Canyon fire is burning. Thick smoke and nearby evacuations had the county releasing preliminary results at 7:30pm and then sending workers home for their own safety.

Election workers were granted a two-hour access to the tabulation building on Wednesday to gather uncounted ballots and tabulation equipment.

“All of the ballots and all of the equipment have been under video surveillance this entire time,” Alissa Vander Veen, chief deputy with the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s Office told The Gazette.

The county was also forced to move its ballot collection process from outside the building to inside because smoke was too thick for election workers to stand outside waiting for voters to drive-up and drop off their ballots.