- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

Military officials are hustling to ensure that troops deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere abroad know their widely varying state rules on absentee ballots, the result of the Pentagon’s abandoning plans to have them vote via the Internet.

With deadlines and procedures varying considerably depending on the home state of a given soldier, sailor, airman or Marine, the process is more complicated than it sounds.

For example, a soldier from Alabama must have his ballot in the hands of that state’s election officials by 5 p.m. on the day prior to the election, while another from Washington state has until 15 days after the election, as long as his ballot is postmarked by Election Day.

“It varies from state to state the way that it’s done,” said Maj. Sandra Burr, a Pentagon spokeswoman who said that military officials are trying to make it possible for some troops to fax their ballots directly to election officials in their home states with the goal of bypassing mail service altogether.

A $22 million Internet voting system for troops — Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE) — was scrapped in March “because we didn’t have confidence in the security of it,” Maj. Burr said.

She added that “rather than risk a vote being miscast or misrepresented or something happening to it, we opted to simply not go forward for this year.”

“We’re hopeful that we can do it in the future, and we are pursuing that,” she said. “What we’re focused on now is making sure every troop out there knows how to vote through the absentee-ballot system.”

The Pentagon says officials with the Military Postal Service Agency and the U.S. Postal Service are discussing ways to give postmarked military ballots higher priority than regular mail as the election nears.

Military absentee ballots became a hot issue during the 2000 presidential election standoff in Florida, where Republicans accused Democrats of pushing state election officials to reject overseas ballots with improper postmarks.

That situation, coupled with the overall lack of consistency in voting rules among states nationwide, appeared to be the thrust behind the Pentagon’s efforts to do away with absentee ballots by implementing a military-wide Internet voting system.

But SERVE, the brainchild of the Pentagon’s Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), hit a roadblock in January when a team of academics testing it concluded that because SERVE was Internet-based, it had “fundamental security problems,” leaving it “vulnerable to a variety of well-known cyber-attacks.”

An Internet hacker located anywhere in the world could render the system useless or alter a given voter’s choice, said a report written by computer scientists from the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program was taking on “an essentially impossible task” in trying to create SERVE, according to the report, which also said the system was “too far ahead of its time, and should wait until there is a much-improved security infrastructure to build upon.”

As a result, U.S. troops abroad will send their ballots in the same as always in November — through the postal system, the Pentagon said.

FVAP Director Polli Brunelli had expressed confidence in SERVE when The Washington Times interviewed her last August, saying that the system used a “secure socket layer” to ship ballots across the Internet and that it would be no less tamper-proof than casting ballots in a voting booth.

Mrs. Brunelli did not return phone calls last week and a woman answering the telephone at FVAP said they were not allowed to speak to reporters.

Maj. Burr said the Pentagon has dispatched specially trained “voting assistance officers” in units deployed around the world, working to make fax machines available and helping soldiers learn what is required from their home states to ensure that absentee ballots are counted.

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