October 4, 2010 By Russell Nichols
For decades, Americans living and serving overseas had a hard time trying to deal with a long-distance democracy.
Historically voters stationed in the military and overseas had to wait as long as three extra weeks for their ballots to arrive. During elections, such delays can be crucial as late ballots don’t get counted. These technical hurdles can muffle the voices of millions of U.S. voters scattered around the globe.
“When I was stationed overseas in the military, during election time it always felt like I had to fight two battles,” said retired Navy Chief Dearl Hankins of Kitsap County, Wash., in a statement. “One battle was against the enemy and one just to be able to vote.”
But with the aid of technology, that voting battle may be over.
With November elections on the horizon, Democracy Live, a leading election technology firm, has joined forces with Microsoft to enhance online absentee ballot tools and make it easier for U.S. citizens abroad to vote during federal, state and local elections.
In alignment with the new Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act passed in 2009, Democracy Live technology called LiveBallot allows voters living anywhere in the world to register for and securely access an absentee ballot online, according to Bryan Finney, executive director of Democracy Live. It’s important to note that LiveBallot isn’t Internet voting, Finney said, but instead a tool that enables voters to print, mail and track ballots, and find out when they’re received and processed by a county election office.
Under the MOVE Act, state and local governments have until the November 2010 elections to put measures in place that will make voting more accessible and reliable for U.S. military and overseas citizens. Several states, such as Delaware, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Idaho, have begun implementing the technology.
For voting systems, demand comes in cycles. Most of the time these systems sit idle. When election time comes around, usage skyrockets.
This cyclical pattern makes voting systems perfect for a cloud platform, according to Andy Pitman, Microsoft public sector industry solution manager.
With LiveBallot running on Microsoft’s Windows Azure cloud platform, state and local governments can save money by cutting back on paper needed to produce sample ballots, voter pamphlets and other information. At the same time, Democracy Live can manage the strain on election resources by scaling systems up or down as necessary. In the cloud, Pitman said, the application is secure and frees Democracy Live from storage complexities. Completed ballots go straight to the state.
“This is sort of a stepping stone to what we believe is the future,” he said. “This type of application really positions elections to be more modern and easier for the citizens.”
Online absentee ballots may be a foreign concept to some states, but not Delaware.
“Our concern is with the voter and making sure he or she gets the ballot and has the opportunity to return it on time,” said Howard Sholl, deputy director of the Department of Elections for New Castle County, Del.
Sholl remembers in 2008 when several troops were deployed and their absentee ballots came back late. They did nothing wrong, Sholl said, but the U.S. Postal Service didn’t deliver them before the deadline.
An Army reservist in an airfield in Baghdad had a similar problem, Sholl recalled, when a primary ballot took weeks to get from Iraq to Delaware.
“We went back to General Assembly and said, ‘We need people to be able to send ballots electronically,’” he said.
According to Sholl, LiveBallot streamlines the voting process by putting the tools online and providing immediate access to absentee ballots. Since implementation, Sholl said, the tool has been well received. The Army reservist, as an example, was able to return his general election in one day.
“Notifications are sent to voters that ballots are online,” he said. “They log in, get their ballot and send it back however they want. Some ballots are sent back within a few hours of notification.”
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