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Electronic Voting Improvements for Military Members Living Overseas

voting / data security / blog / elections / research

I recently wrote about how basic policy improvements can improve the voting process for all Americans living overseas.

In December 2016, the Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI), a collaboration between the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) and The Council of State Governments, released a set of recommendations focused on using technology to improve the voting process for Americans abroad. The product of significant research, two notable recommendations focus on:

  • Using Department of Defense Common Access Cards (CACs) for signing documents digitally;
  • Duplicating damaged or unreadable ballots;

Policies Leading To Change

These recommendations reflect the new reality of elections in the United States – especially for American overseas voters. Two major policy changes have driven the need for these recommendations. First, in 2009, the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act became law and this law did much to revolutionize the voting process. Specifically, it required states to send ballots out to voters at least 45 days prior to Election Day and it also required states to develop mechanisms for transmitting ballots to voters electronically. Second, more and more states have developed online voter registration systems, which allow citizens – including overseas voters – to register to vote online.

Today, more and more American citizens can register to vote electronically and all of them can get a blank ballot delivered to them electronically as well. One of the recommendations of the OVI suggests a way to make the registration and ballot request process even easier, and a second recommendation suggests a way to handle ballots that have been transmitted electronically.

Recommendation 1: Making Document Signing Easier

For individuals who work for the Department of Defense, Common Access Cards (CAC) are a key part of day-to day-lives. DoD employees use CACs to log into email systems, digitally sign emails, digitally sign documents, and gain access to secure networks. Since a CAC is a form of multi-factor authentication – an individual has to have both the card and a unique personal identification number to use a CAC – as a form of identification, it’s quite effective. Not only does it use the Department of Defense’s trust authority to verify that the digital certificate for the electronic signature on a CAC is valid and current, but also everyone who has a CAC is subject to a background investigation.

The OVI is recommending that States leverage the benefits of the CAC and allow voters to use their CAC to register to vote and request an absentee ballot, and to designate their voting status on a state’s online election portal. So how do we move this forward? Leveraging the CAC digital signature in this way requires a state to give the CAC digital signatures legal status, which most states have done with electronic signatures in other sectors.

Recommendation 2: Improve Duplication of Unreadable and Damaged Ballots

The transmission of ballots electronically has benefitted voters greatly by getting them their ballots faster. The voter can mark his/ her ballot and return it without having to wait for it to arrive in the mail. However, the returned ballots (once received and printed) have been marked on regular paper, not ballot paper. Ballot paper is typically thicker and is a different size compared to the paper a voter would use to print an electronic ballot. In order to be tabulated, these electronically transmitted ballots have to be duplicated – transferred onto a standard blank ballot that can then be scanned and tabulated. The original ballots are stored for auditing purposes and can be linked to the scanned ballot using a code on both documents.

OVI is recommending that jurisdictions across the United States -- regardless of whether they duplicate ballots manually or electronically – develop clear procedures for how to handle duplicated ballots so that the process can be audited. As I have discussed before, auditable processes promote confidence; people can understand what is being done and why. For jurisdictions that duplicate a large number of ballots, there are now technologies that can make the process easier and more observable. These technologies make the process of recording votes onto a blank ballot from a voted ballot easier than ever.

The Bottom Line: Easier Voter Registration and Easier Votes Counting

The OVI recommendations get at two key parts of the voting process that can be improved through technology. Letting military personnel and those with a Department of Defense CAC sign registration and ballot request forms electronically will bring modern technology to an old process. Electronic signatures are used in a variety of settings now; and would not be difficult to add this to the voting process.

Stay tuned for more on this topic next week. And Tweet me your questions about this article at @Hall_Thad.


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