Electronic Transmission of Ballots

9/5/2019

image of a databaseThe idea of conducting elections entirely via the internet is not something states are considering now or in the near future. Many states, however, are allowing certain voters to submit their absentee ballots electronically. Sending voted ballots electronically—via fax, email or web portal—is most often reserved for voters who fall under the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). UOCAVA voters often face unique challenges in obtaining and returning absentee ballots within state deadlines. Imagine, for instance, the difficulty of getting an absentee ballot back to a county clerk from a remote military base in Afghanistan. Because of these difficulties, states have considered several ways for these voters to submit their ballots electronically. 

  • Four states allow some voters to return ballots using a web-based portal: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and North Dakota. Note that Missouri only offers electronic ballot return for military voters serving in a "hostile zone." These states may also allow some voters to return ballots via email or fax (see the table below for more details). Alabama conducted a pilot project in 2016 to permit UOCAVA voters located outside of U.S. territorial limits to submit voted ballots via a web portal, but the state has not made this program permanent. Alaska previously made a web portal available to any absentee voter to return a voted ballot, but discontinued this option in 2018.
  • One state has a mobile voting app: West Virginia is offering a mobile voting application in 2018 using blockchain technology. Use of the app is limited to UOCAVA voters. More information on the pilot project can be found in this video from the West Virginia Secretary of State's Office.
  • Nineteen states + DC allow some voters to return ballots via email or fax: Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington.
  • Seven states allow some voters to return ballots via fax: Alaska, California, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Texas.
  • Nineteen states do not allow electronic transmission. Voters must return voted ballots via postal mail: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. 

News Update: 

  • In 2019 the city of Denver and Utah County, Utah both piloted a mobile app utilizing blockchain for military and overseas voters.
  • In 2018 West Virginia announced the availability of a mobile voting app for military and overseas voters that uses blockchain technology. The app was piloted in the 2018 Primary Election and the opportunity to use the app was subsequently offered as an option to all of the state's 55 counties. 24 counties plan to offer the option to their UOCAVA voters in the 2018 General Election.
  • In 2018 the Alaska Division of Elections announced that it would no longer accept completed ballots from any absentee voter via its web portal due to security concerns.
  • In 2017 California enacted AB 1013 which will permit a voter with a disability or military/overseas voter to cast their ballot using a certified, remote accessible vote-by-mail system. The provisions will be effective Jan. 1, 2020 or one year after the secretary of state certifies an acceptable system. The requirement to offer a remote accessible vote-by-mail system will not apply to a county conducting an all-mail ballot election.”
  • In 2016 Louisiana HB 614 permitted the distribution of blank ballots electronically to voters with a disability, as well as the return of voted ballots by fax for these voters.
  • In 2016 Hawaii enacted HB 1654, which allows all permanent absentee voters to request an absentee ballot be sent to a temporary address for an election cycle. If the request is made within five days of an election, the absentee ballot may be sent and returned by electronic transmission (or by mail).
  • In 2016 Alabama implemented a web portal for UOCAVA voters stationed outside of the U.S. to return voted ballots. This system was implemented as a pilot program for the March 1, 2016 primary election only.  
  • In 2016 Florida enacted SB 184 which created a Military and Overseas Voting Assistance Task Force to study barriers for absent uniformed service voters, and the feasibility and costs of developing an online voting system. The group issued a report in June 2017, which specifically did not recommend that the state develop and implement and online voting system "due to the formidable challenges associated with establishing this new type of system, such as ballot integrity, security, technology, privacy, and cost."
  • In 2015 Maine passed SB 552, which authorizes the Secretary of State to mandate a method of electronically receiving voted absentee ballots from UOCAVA voters (possibly expanding the methods of return available to these voters, who currently can use fax or email to return voted ballots.)
  • In 2014 Virginia passed SB 11, which required the State Board of Elections to develop secure electronic ballot return for UOCAVA voters. The working group submitted a final report in November 2015.

Federal Requirements for Sending Ballots

Delivering Blank Ballots: The federal Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act (MOVE), passed in 2009, requires states to provide blank absentee ballots to UOCAVA voters in at least one electronic format -- email, fax, or an online delivery system -- at least 45 days before an election. For the specifics of the options that states make available to voters, please consult the Federal Voting Assistance Program's Voting Assistance Guide. UOCAVA voters from any state can also use an online Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot offered by the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP). This is intended to be used as a back-up ballot for voters who do not receive a ballot from their state. It can be marked electronically using FVAP's online ballot marking tool, then printed, signed and returned to a local election official.

Returning Voted Ballots: The MOVE Act does not require that states accept voted ballots electronically. Returning ballots by mail continues to be the default option, and in 19 states this is the only option. For details on the other 31 states and DC, see the table below.

Returning Voted Ballots

STATE

EMAIL

FAX*

WEB PORTAL**

WHO CAN USE THIS? 

Alaska

 

 

UOCAVA voters

Arizona

 

UOCAVA voters

California

 

  UOCAVA voters

Colorado

Only UOCAVA voters and only in circumstances where a more secure method, such as mail, is not available or feasible

Delaware

  UOCAVA voters

D.C.

  UOCAVA voters

Florida

 

  UOCAVA voters

Hawaii

 

 

In addition to UOCAVA voters, all permanent absentee voters who do not receive a mailed ballot within five days of the election

Idaho

 

Only citizens directly affected by "a national or local emergency” declared by the secretary of state

Indiana

  UOCAVA voters

Iowa

 

Only UOCAVA voters in an area eligible for imminent danger pay or active military members located outside of the U.S.

Kansas

  UOCAVA voters

Louisiana

 

  UOCAVA voters and voters with a disability

Maine

  UOCAVA voters

Massachusetts

  UOCAVA voters

Mississippi

  UOCAVA voters

Missouri

UOCAVA voters serving in a “hostile fire area”

Montana

  UOCAVA voters

Nebraska

  UOCAVA voters

Nevada

  UOCAVA voters

New Jersey

 

UOCAVA voters, who must also send a hard copy of the ballot via postal mail

New Mexico

  UOCAVA voters

North Carolina

  UOCAVA voters

North Dakota

 

UOCAVA voters

Oklahoma

 

  UOCAVA voters

Oregon

  UOCAVA voters

Rhode Island

 

  UOCAVA voters

South Carolina

  UOCAVA voters

Texas

 

 

Only active duty uniformed service members (or their family members) who are eligible for hostile fire/imminent danger pay or who are in an area designated as a combat zone by the President of the U.S. 

Utah

 

UOCAVA voters and voters with a disability

Washington

  UOCAVA voters

West Virginia

UOCAVA voters. In 2018 West Virginia is offering a mobile voting option for eligible UOCAVA voters, the first of its kind in the nation. 

 *Note: faxes can be sent over phone lines or over the Internet. 

**Note: Many states offer a web portal for online ballot delivery to some voters. The states listed here offer a web portal for return of voted ballots for some voters. Although some systems allow a voted ballot to be submitted entirely online, others require the voter to print the voted ballot and upload it back into the system as a PDF.

Security and Other Considerations for Adopting Electronic Transmission

While electronic transmission allows voters to cast their ballots quickly and easily, and meet absentee ballot deadlines, these issues of timeliness and convenience must be balanced by other considerations.

  • Privacy: Because election officials are able to identify the person who sent a ballot via electronic transmission, ballots are not fully anonymous. Privacy of the ballot is a value for voters and for society as a whole.
  • Security of the election process: Many cybersecurity experts are concerned that any Internet connection could be vulnerable to hacking or other cyber attacks.
  • Security of the voter’s computer.
  • Denial of service attack: Potential attackers could disrupt the system by overloading it and prevent communications (i.e. voted ballots) from getting through.
  • Voter coercion: The possibility that a voter could be coerced into voting a certain way is a consideration for electronic transmission, as well as for traditional mail absentee voting.
  • Auditability: Electronic transmission does not allow a voter to verify if the ballot received matches the one sent, and without a paper record, a cyberattack may be undetectable.
  • Authentication: How to verify the identity of the voter must be determined. For example, Alaska requires that the ballot be accompanied by two authentication documents that must be printed and signed by the voter and a witness. See details below.
  • Inconvenience for the local election official: The requirement that each electronically received ballot must be duplicated, probably by a bipartisan team, is an additional burden on the local election office.

Additional Resources