West Virginia shows that Internet-based voting not only works, but it also increases the return rate for absentee ballots.
Editor’s note: Natalie Tennant is the Secretary of State of West Virginia. She wrote this column for the July issue of Government Technology magazine.
In 2010, West Virginia initiated a pilot program to provide deployed military and overseas citizens the opportunity to cast their ballot quickly and securely over the Internet. That year, 31 states provided military and overseas voters enhanced ballot access. This included electronic delivery of ballots, online access to ballots, and a variety of electronic ballot return options.
During the 2010 general election, 125 West Virginia voters covered under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 from eight counties cast their ballot online. That number represented a 162 percent increase over the participation in the 2010 primary. The 76 percent online-vote return rate far exceeds the average 58 percent absentee ballot return rate experienced by counties using standard mail as the ballot transmission method.
The state worked in close partnership with county clerks, representatives of the military and overseas communities and two vendor partners. The two participating online voting pilot vendors are each registered with Dun and Bradstreet and are familiar names in the election systems arena. Scytl has been a leader in election-related applications since 1994, and Everyone Counts is an established online systems business specialist.
To develop multiple security layers, the online voting systems runs on redundant servers, located locally and remotely. Each system uses 2048-bit encryption, Secure Socket Layer access to the application (a method for securing communications between a client and a server), and was developed to serve West Virginia-specific requirements with each using different programming languages and system design architectures.
The online voting applications use a form of cryptography, including separate encryption/decryption algorithms, for creating keys to link the voter data with ballot data. While neither of the two companies has submitted their processes for validation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Cryptographic Algorithm Validation Program, there is no current requirement for this review.
To date, no significant deficiencies or concerns have been identified with the West Virginia online voting pilot.
In short, what West Virginia did worked. It was a small program that helped an admittedly small group of voters cast their ballot more conveniently. There were 125 opportunities for something to go wrong, but to our knowledge, nothing did.
There will be those who say Internet voting is far too dangerous, that it is rife with the potential for wrongdoing, that it is easily manipulated.
I, and election officials across the country, remain vigilant against assaults on every method of voting — whether it be a paper ballot, optical scan machines, touch-screen voting, Internet voting or voting by mail.
My record proves, by conducting hundreds of investigations and recently securing the guilty pleas of some elected officials, that I do not tolerate election law violation — regardless of party or position. I also believe that it is my duty to continue to improve access to voting, for all voters, overcoming barriers to the process.
Instead of continuing to focus on the shortcomings of Internet voting, opponents could help strengthen it. Computer experts could lend their skills to developing encryption software that guarantees that each ballot is securely transmitted. Election officials could help voters better understand how the process works.
Internet voting should be a safe, secure, accessible option for voters. It is time that we, as a society, agree that our voting is far too sacred to compromise — and that at some point in time this sacred right and accessible technology must intersect. I believe the time to explore that is now.
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