- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

The Pentagon is putting the finishing touches on an electronic voting system that will allow about 100,000 military personnel and other Americans living abroad to cast their ballots through the Internet in the 2004 elections.

Military absentee ballots were a hot issue in the most recent presidential election, when Republicans accused Democrats of pushing Florida officials to reject overseas ballots that were improperly postmarked.

The new system, in which each voter is assigned a digital signature for voting through a secure Internet connection, will replace the postal method of absentee ballots, particularly for U.S. troops deployed around the world.

“We have troops on the move,” said Polli Brunelli, director of the Pentagon’s Federal Voting Assistance Program, which designed the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE).

“Sometimes the troops’ ballots are sent to an address they asked them to be sent, but when the ballots get there, the troops may have moved,” Ms. Brunelli said. “But the troops may have Internet access where they are going.”

Survey data indicate that 29 percent of absentee voters who did not vote during the 2000 elections said it was because they didn’t receive their ballot in time or they didn’t receive it at all, the Defense Department said. Though they are a small percentage of votes in a national election, overseas voters can be crucial if the contest is close.

Amid the 2000 election battle of swinging chads in Florida, state election officials disqualified more than 1,000 overseas ballots on grounds the ballots lacked the correct postmarks. Many of those ballots were from U.S. troops, and Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer, on Nov. 21, 2000, accused Democrats of “successfully knocking out as many military votes as they could find.”

Republicans at the time said Gore operatives were pushing to have the unpostmarked overseas ballots thrown out because Democrats believed that U.S. troops would vote for Mr. Bush. Democrats angrily denied the charge.

“Men and women in the military should not expect, and do not expect, to be treated in some fashion that has them being a pawn in a political argument that’s very tense and very passionate here in Florida,” Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, told reporters Nov. 21, demanding that Republicans retract their “unfair and irresponsible” accusations.

Postmarks will be obsolete under SERVE, but voters using the system will need access to the Internet and Windows software. Although she could not offer numbers, Ms. Brunelli said the “vast majority of troops” on deployment overseas have such access, including many of those serving in Iraq.

Although it won’t be impossible for a person using SERVE to commit voter fraud, Ms. Brunelli said the digital signature, a string of randomly generated letters and characters different for each registered voter, makes using the system as secure as visiting a voting booth.

Committing fraud through SERVE would be no less difficult than committing it on election day at a regular polling station, she said, adding that the system’s security measures are “more sophisticated” than what a person must go through to partake in banking transactions through the Internet.

Because election regulations are determined on a state-by-state basis, officials with the Federal Voting Assistance Program have been working with states, sometimes down to the county level, to develop SERVE.

A 2002 federal law mandates that the Pentagon carry out an electronic voting demonstration project in coordination with state election officials, but no states are required by federal law to participate in the project. Maryland, Virginia and the District are not among the jurisdictions signed up for the system.

Ten states have volunteered for SERVE, which is costing the Pentagon about $22 million and will be undergoing a series of final evaluations by an independent contractor during the next few months with the goal of having it implemented in January, Ms. Brunelli said.

To use SERVE, a prospective voter must visit www.serveusa.gov and obtain a digital signature. “Like a type of notary function,” Ms. Brunelli said, “it says you are who you say you are.”

Once on the system, the voter fills out an electronic ballot that looks similar to a regular absentee ballot. The ballot is submitted through the Internet through what Ms. Brunelli calls a “secure socket layer” directly to a computer monitored by election officials in the voter’s home jurisdiction.

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