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Election 2012: Sandy Prompts N.J. to Extend E-Mail Voting

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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vote,election,Internet,securityStorm-ravaged New Jersey could set off a tempest of its own on Election Day if the state lets constituents vote via e-mail and fax, cautioned a group of legal, technology and election experts during a press conference on Monday. These experts are challenging N.J. Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno’s executive order issued late last week that extends Internet-based voting privileges usually reserved for overseas military personnel to residents displaced by Superstorm Sandy.

The central point of contention is that whereas military absentee voters are required by law to mail a paper ballot in addition to voting by e-mail or fax, Guadagno’s directive (pdf) makes no mention of a backup paper trail. What’s more, N.J. hurricane victims who opt to vote via e-mail or fax would be required to sign waiver that removes their anonymity when casting their ballot electronically.

Executive Order 104 states, among other things, that any voters displaced from their primary residence because of Sandy for this election is considered an “overseas voter” and can request a ballot via e-mail or fax from their county clerk by 5 p.m. on Election Day. The clerk will then e-mail or fax a ballot and “waiver of secrecy” form, which the voter must print, fill out, sign and return by fax or e-mail.

“What’s puzzling is the lieutenant governor’s directive is only half of what [state law] requires, allowing for Internet voting without also requiring the paper ballot to protect the integrity of the vote,” said Penny Venetis, a clinical professor of law at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark, at Monday’s press conference.

If paper ballots are not included as part of the executive order, votes made online are likely open to legal challenges following the election, Venetis said, adding, “We have been working with the lieutenant governor’s office to get her to change the directive to institute the protections that the legislature requires.”

Even if paper ballots are required, the Internet’s shaky security threatens to invalidate votes sent by e-mail. “It’s quite easy to fake an e-mail address, so you can’t really ever tell who an e-mail is coming from,” said Princeton University computer science professor Andrew Appel, also at the press conference.

Many personal computers are also infected with viruses that give hackers control of these systems. Often hackers use compromised PCs to send out large quantities of spam that perpetuate the original virus—all without the user’s knowledge. If a user’s computer has been compromised in this way, “it’s really quite technologically feasible for a spammer to alter an outgoing e-mail as it leaves your computer,” Appel said. “E-mail is completely untrustworthy and insecure unless it’s backed up by a paper ballot that the voter signs and mails in and that is the ballot of record.”

The use of a privacy waiver when returning an e-mailed or faxed ballot is also troubling—N.J.’s approach would allow ballots to be traced back to individual voters. The secret ballot is in place to protect voters against coercion and intimidation by election officials, employers and others, Appel pointed out.

Neighboring New York State, also hit hard by Sandy, is pursuing a different path to ensure the best turnout possible for Tuesday’s elections. About one eighth of the state’s voters—a little more than one million—are living in areas where the poll sites were damaged or have electrical outages as of Sunday.

In case where polling sites were damaged beyond use—a condition affecting about 250,000 New York voters—those polls have been relocated as close as possible to the original designated area, said Doug Kellner, co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections. He added that voters are being notified of these changes and that the city is considering ways to provide transportation to get voters to election sites.

Despite substantial damage to lower Manhattan, Staten Island and Long Island during the storm that has cut power to a number of polling sites, the state is not even considering the use of Internet voting. “Even with his emergency powers, [Governor Andrew Cuomo] would not have the authority to include such a remedy in any executive order,” Kellner said. Even more so, there is a consensus among the senior election officials in New York that procedures allowing the delivery of votes by fax or e-mail are completely insecure, that they’re hackable and that they’re not verifiable, he added.

Another problem with Internet voting in the wake of the storm is that many voters lack Internet access. The effort spent finding an Internet connection might as well be spent getting to a polling site, Kellner noted, adding, “There’s also a question of fairness for those people on the other side of the digital divide who do not have access to fax or Internet or backup electricity to run a printer.”

Many voters might think that Internet voting is a good idea because they lack other options, but the truth is that registered voters can cast a ballot at any polling place in New Jersey, said Pam Smith, president of Verified Voting Foundation, at the press conference. Although they won’t be able to vote in local races, they can be assured that their votes for state and federal officials will be counted and will be confidential.

Image courtesy of Ricardo Infante Alvarez, via iStockphoto.com

About the Author: Larry is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jafis 1:51 am 11/7/2012

    Sounds like a half-baked political decision rushed through without proper evaluation…….a lawyer’s wet dream.

    Link to this

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