Monday, November 12, 2012

Pros and Cons of Email Voting in New Jersey...

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, displaced New Jersey residents were given the ability, at the last minute, to cast their vote in Tuesday's election via email or fax.

There were some very valid reasons why Governor Chris Christie decided to offer this emergency measure.  As of Saturday, 2.4 million of the state's 8.8 million residents were still without power, and by Tuesday - Election Day - over 500,000 homes and businesses still didn't have power.  When you also factor in the continuing gasoline shortage making travel extremely difficult, there was a real possibility that thousands of voters would have been disenfranchised.

However, it was inevitable that problems would arise associated with implementing this major and sudden change to the voting system only 72 hours before the election.  Election officials were inundated with a flood of application requests that filled their inboxes, making it impossible for them to process them all within the allotted time.  There was also plenty of general confusion among NJ voters, many of whom, still lacking power, became aware of this new voting measure solely through word-of-mouth, and misinformation spread about the details and the process.

And these problems only relate to the last-minute nature of the voting measure.  There are other well-established concerns with email voting relating to hacking, the lack of encryption, the difficulty in identity verification, and other cybersecurity issues.

How did NJ's email voting process actually work?  Basically, it was the exact same process that has been used for years for members of the military or other overseas citizens.  NJ residents could email to their county clerk a "mail-in ballot" application by 5pm on Election Day (Tuesday, Nov. 6th).  The county clerk then had until noon on Friday, Nov. 9th to process, hopefully, all of those applications.  Assuming the application was approved, the voter then had to email, fax or mail in a signed waiver of secrecy along with the voted ballot for receipt by the appropriate county board of elections no later than 8pm, also on Friday, Nov. 9th.  Finally, the County Board of Elections would have to verify that (a) the voter did not cast a vote in a voting machine at his or her assigned polling place and, (b) the voter did not submit any other paper ballot.

Whew.

Taking a long-term view, the national debate over email or Internet voting can be summarized by exactly what happened in New Jersey last week:  striking a balance between enabling more citizens to vote vs. legitimate concerns about security and fraud.  The technology is ready, but election laws and implementation procedures surrounding them, particularly at the local level, don't seem quite ready for primetime just yet.

Ironically, it may have worked to New Jersey's advantage to announce email voting only 72 hours ahead of time.  This gave hackers and people committed to fraud very little time to figure out how to game the system.

  

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