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A Times Editorial

No time for voting experiment

With Florida being home to the butterfly ballot and hanging chad, it is probably not the best state to experiment with a new voting system that experts say is not ready for prime time. The Panhandle county of Okaloosa is asking permission to embark on a small-scale pilot program of electronic distance voting over the Internet. While Okaloosa elections officials have good intentions, the program should be rejected by the state. Time is too short for the proper vetting, and the potential pitfalls are too great.

The Okaloosa Distance Balloting Pilot is being spearheaded by county Supervisor of Elections Pat Hollarn. The program would initially serve fewer than 1,000 voters but could be used as a model to spread Internet voting to all Americans based overseas. For 10 days leading up to the November general election, computer kiosks would be set up near three military bases in Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany. Okaloosa County voters would use those kiosks to vote on an encrypted electronic ballot. The transmission on a secure computer line would travel to a data center in Spain and then to Florida elections officials for tabulating.

Members of the military have special challenges participating in elections. And Okaloosa County, home to Eglin Air Force Base, has a special responsibility to make absentee voting work. But Internet voting is too vulnerable to manipulation. In 2007, a group of three renowned computer science professors and researchers wrote that current Internet and PC architectures are "such highly insecure platforms" that it is "impossible to develop a secure system for voting."

There is no doubt that military personnel have difficulty getting their votes to count when they are overseas. In 2006, it is estimated that as few as one-third of overseas absentee ballots were returned in a timely manner. But there are ways to address these issues without resorting to an inherently insecure electronic system.

For example, on the Okaloosa County elections supervisor's Web site is a promotion for the Express Your Vote initiative sponsored by the Overseas Vote Foundation. The program gives citizens abroad the option of having their ballots returned using FedEx Express services at rates ranging from discounted to free, depending on the country.

Hollarn says the overseas electronic voter would receive verification of his or her vote, which the voter would drop into a tamper-proof box. That box will then be returned to elections offices before Election Day, so there would be a paper backup of the electronic vote. But if the physical transfer of voting records is possible in time to count, then the electronic vote — with all its attendant dangers — is irrelevant and unnecessary.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning must approve this experiment. But tests conducted by experts within and outside the department are not yet complete. With less than two months to go before the election, there is too little time to publicly evaluate this experiment.

There also are serious questions about the electronic voting system's legality. State law passed in 2007 requires paper ballots in all Florida elections. The law makes only a narrow exception to this for handicapped voters. Yet the Internet voting plan would not include paper balloting, only paper verification.

There is no reason to rush into electronic voting in this election. It's better to focus on making the delivery and return of paper absentee ballots quicker and more reliable for soldiers stationed overseas, and leave Internet voting alone until the security and technical issues have been resolved.

No time for voting experiment 09/14/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 2:15pm]
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