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General News    H4'ed 2/22/15

The 21st Century: What's in Store for Maryland Voters and the U.S., IV? Will Voters' Privacy and Security Become History

By       (Page 1 of 3 pages)   No comments, In Series: Election Integrity

If it's on the Internet, it isn't private.
If it's on the Internet, it isn't private.
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The 21 st Century: What's in Store for Maryland Voters and the U.S., IV? Will Voters' Privacy and Security Descend into History Altogether?

It's the 21 st century, stupid, which means that U.S. military and overseas voters may now receive their electoral ballots online rather than through the mail, print them out, fill them in, and mail them back in plenty of time to be received and counted on or before Election Day. Before the passage of the Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment (MOVE) Act in 2010, the amount of time from beginning to end of overseas voting could be weeks or even months, depending on where the ballot was mailed to and from. Soldiers fighting on front lines in Afghanistan or wherever else couldn't always get to these ballots soon enough and many came in too late to be counted. Blessings to the Internet.

But Maryland's State Administrator of Elections, Linda Lamone, decided to extend the option of online ballot delivery to all Maryland voters. Those who eschew the polls could, just like military and overseas voters, download their blank ballots from the Internet. But ballots printed by a voter cannot be counted by the optical scanners used to count other absentee ballots. They have to first be hand-transcribed onto blank ballots that can be read by the scanners. This can create a lot of work for election officials at a time when they are already very busy.

So in 2011, the Maryland State Board of Elections (SBE) got a grant of several hundred thousand dollars from the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), a division of the Department of Defense that oversees military and overseas voting. Part of the money was designated to develop a new Online Ballet Marking (OBM) tool unique to the Old Line State that would automate the hand-copying of the ballots. It involves an Internet interface: voters would use the newly developed online ballot marking (OBM) system to fill in their choices online. Each choice the voter makes is transmitted to a server and stored there temporarily while the voter marks the ballot. When the voter is finished voting, their selections are encoded into a QR barcode that appears in a corner of the downloaded ballot. The voter prints the filled-in ballot and mails it to the local board of elections.

Fill it in online? Are they kidding? A hobby-hacker, or worse yet, purposeful political corrupter's dream!

When they receive the ballot, election officials feed the barcode into an on-demand printer, which generates a fully filled out, scannable ballot, to be treated like a traditional absentee ballot thereafter. It would no longer be necessary for human beings to copy these mailed-in ballots by hand onto scannable forms--a process that required five minutes per form, it was claimed.

Five minutes per ballot would therefore be saved, is the claim. More 21 st -century technology, more technology to build into the voting process. What's that? Fewer human beings? Why, the very mention of the words "Internet voting" wreaks havoc with sensible souls--EI people and then some, but not everyone. As mentioned above, some people want to move the entire voting process onto the Internet. But not the experts, the computer scientists, who favor the use of paper ballots instead.

But before OBM progresses any farther than to military and overseas populations, a "minor" problem has generated controversy in Maryland that has traveled from municipal settings all the way to federal court. The problem is that the OBM system is not federally certified--that is, no standards have yet been set for this type of Internet-based system so it has not been tested and approved for use--sort of like permitting a new medication onto the market without preliminary FDA clinical trials. The General Assembly has already approved the use of OBM for ALL MD voters once it is certified.

The federal government body that oversees certification, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), deals with entire voting systems rather than isolated parts of them, so they must look at all of the hardware, software, firmware, processes and procedures to determine whether a voting system can be used safely. In our scenario, for example, a vulnerability in the software of the barcode scanner could allow a virus to slip into the system undetected through a hacked barcode and infect the vote-tabulating software. While compliance with EAC standards is officially voluntary, Maryland law requires it for a voting system to be used in the state.

[author's note: at a recent summit conference in DC, an expert predicted that military and overseas voters would be voting 100 percent online in ten years, while the rest of us will wait several lifetimes.]

In 2012 a bill was introduced into Maryland's General Assembly (MGA) that would have waived all of Maryland's voting system certification requirements for the OBM system. The bill did not pass but prompted a query from a legislator to the Office of then Attorney General Douglas Gansler about whether this type of system would require certification. The Office opined that it did not because it wasn't a voting system (misunderstanding the EAC's definition of a voting system), but that electronic ballot delivery and marking could not be offered to any Maryland voters other than those covered by the federal MOVE Act unless the General Assembly (Maryland's state senate and house) specifically authorized it.

In 2013 a new bill, the Voter Empowerment Act, was introduced by Gov. Martin O'Malley under the sponsorship of the leaders of the General Assembly. It expanded early voting by days, locations, and hours of operation. Same-day registration would be permitted during early voting days only, beginning in 2016. BUT the third component once again attempted to legalize OBM and waive certification requirements for it. Activists converged to suggest amendments: that OBM must be specified as incapable of recording, storing, or transmitting voted ballots over the internet and that every OBM ballot "recreated" via barcode must be hand-checked against the mailed-in version, with the latter serving as the official record of voter intent in the event of discrepancies. That makes sense, as does the readmission of more human beings into a process that does concern us a lot more than mindless machinery.

Finally, OBM had to be accessible , which they so far were not.

The amendments were admitted into the legislation.

The law passed.

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Marta Steele is an author/editor/blogger who has been writing for Opednews.com since 2006. She is also author of the 2012 book "Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols: The Election Integrity Movement's Nonstop Battle to Win Back the People's Vote, (more...)

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