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Internet Voting

Electronic Transmission of Ballots

6/26/2014

image of a databaseWhile the idea of conducting elections entirely via the Internet is not something states are considering now or in the near future, many states are allowing certain voters to submit their absentee ballots electronically. Sending voted ballots electronically (via fax, email or web upload) 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. 

  • Two states allow some voters to return ballots via email, fax, or web upload: Alaska and Arizona
  • Twenty-three states + DC allow some voters to return ballots via email or fax: Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Washington and West Virginia
  • Six states allow some voters to return ballots via fax: California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, 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. 

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.

State

E-mail

Fax*

Web-based

Who can use this? 

Alaska

Any eligible voter

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

DC

  UOCAVA voters

Florida

 

  UOCAVA voters

Hawaii

 

 

Only UOCAVA voters who do not receive a mailed ballot within five days of the election

Idaho

 

Only UOCAVA voters and only in certain emergency situations

Indiana

  UOCAVA voters

Iowa

 

Only UOCAVA voters in an area eligible for imminent danger pay

Kansas

  UOCAVA voters

Louisiana

 

  UOCAVA voters

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

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

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.

Case Study: Alaska

Alaska is the first state to offer all voters (not just UOCAVA voters) the chance to submit an absentee ballot electronically.  It did so because it has a particularly a mobile voting population, with many voters not available to vote in their home jurisdiction on Election Day.

Based on this need, in 2012 Alaska developed an online system for returning ballots. UOCAVA voters can apply for an electronically transmitted absentee ballot any time. Civilian voters must apply beginning 15 days before the election. Absentee ballot applications can be sent by mail, fax or email.

When the election official receives an absentee ballot application, he or she first verifies that the voter is registered and eligible to vote and then transmits the ballot via the method requested (mail, fax or via the online system). If the voter has requested to use the online system, the election official sends him an email containing links and instructions.

Voters can mark and submit a ballot through the online system, but must print out a “voter certificate” and “identification sheet” that must be signed by the voter and a witness. The two documents can then be scanned and submitted via the online system as well. Step-by-step instructions on how the online voting system can be found on the State of Alaska’s Division of Elections website.

When a digitally transmitted ballot is received by the elections office, it is printed on official ballot paper stock and counted using the same optical scan system that counts other paper ballots.

If a voter prefers to mail the ballot back, he can still use the online system to receive and mark the ballot. It can be printed and returned by mail. If by mail, he would print off a secrecy envelope, instructions and a return envelope from the online system. All these documents are available in PDF format in one downloadable zip file.

According to a press statement regarding Alaska’s online ballot transmission system, it is hosted in a dedicated secure data center protected by a layer of redundant firewalls. In order to ensure the security of the system, it is under constant physical and application monitoring. 

Case Study: Connecticut

Over the last few years legislators in Connecticut have expressed a continued interest in providing electronic ballot transmission of voted ballots by military and overseas voters.  Because of security concerns and other issues, the state has not yet implemented a system for the return of voted ballots by electronic transmission. Below is a timeline of key steps in Connecticut’s process.

July 2011: In section 59 of SB939 the Connecticut legislature directed the Secretary of the State to conduct a study of Internet voting and recommend a method to permit UOCAVA voters to submit their ballots online.

October 2011: As a part of her study of Internet voting, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill conducted an online voting symposium that brought together academics and experts in the fields of computers science, cryptography, elections administration and voting technology. The security of online voting was a key concern for the group. Two concerns were the integrity of online voting systems and the ability to keep voting information secret. As a result of the symposium and her review of online voting, Secretary Merrill submitted a report to the Government Administration and Elections Committee concluding that there is no existing secure method of online voting.

June 2012: HB 5556 is passed by the legislature but vetoed by the governor. It would have allowed military and overseas voters to return their voted absentee ballots by fax or email. The governor cited security concerns as outlined in a 2011 study of remote voting conducted by NIST and a concern with any mechanism that requires a voter to waive his or her constitutional right to a secret ballot.

June 2013: SB647 directed the Secretary of the State to select a method for UOCAVA voters to return a ballot that maintains security, the privacy of information contained on the ballot, and reaches the election official before the polls close on Election Day.

January 2014: Secretary Merrill submitted a report concluding that her office would require further legislative authorization to proceed with electronic return of voted ballots.  Her response was based on her previous review of security for online voting and determination that online voting is not secure.  The report also indicated that an appropriation would be required to provide a web-based delivery system for UOCAVA voters to download their ballot.  Further legislative action would be required to provide a waiver of the constitutional right to a secret ballot for UOCAVA voters.

March 2014: SJ24 proposed a constitutional amendment to permit UOCAVA voters to waive the right of a secret ballot in order to vote by electronic transmission. SJ24 failed due to adjournment of the legislative session.

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