Pentagon drops online votes for armed forces

The US Department of Defense has abandoned efforts to give overseas military personnel voting access over the internet, because...

The US Department of Defense has abandoned efforts to give overseas military personnel voting access over the internet, because of concerns about the security of the system.

"In view of the inability to ensure legitimacy of votes that would be cast in the Serve internet voting project, thereby bringing into doubt the integrity of the election, I hereby direct you to take immediate steps to ensure that no voters use the system to register or vote via the internet," said deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz in a memo.

Wolfowitz added that "efforts will continue to demonstrate the technical ability to cast ballots over the internet", using knowledge and experience gained so far. He said he would "reconsider his decision in the future if it can be shown that the integrity of the election results can be assured". 

The Wolfowitz memo came nine days after a 34-page report, A security analysis of the secure electronic registration and voting experiment", was sent by a group of technology experts to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, criticising the idea as it was envisioned. 

The group of about a dozen computer experts had been asked by the defence department to review the idea of internet voting, which was proposed after the 2000 presidential elections to make it easier for members of the military and other US citizens to cast their votes while overseas.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program was assembled by the Pentagon to build an internet voting system, which is called Serve (Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment). 

One of the writers of the report, Barbara Simons, a past president of the Association of Computing Machinery and a technology policy expert, said she was pleased with Wolfowitz's decision. 

"I think that the DOD will be making the right decision in cancelling this current effort to hold Internet voting," Simons said. "We share their concern that all the votes in the military arrive on time and be counted. We're certainly prepared to work with them on trying to devise a method that would allow that to happen without jeopardising their security." 

The problem, she added, and the basis for the criticisms in the group's report last month, is that computer security is still not foolproof enough to ensure that fraud and online criminal acts will not affect US elections. 

"We're moving ahead too quickly," Simons said. "It's possible in the foreseeable future that it will be safe to vote on the internet, but it may never be." 

Simons said she and the others on the review panel are sympathetic to the problems of overseas military personnel who have had trouble voting in the past, but she added that more research needs to be done on alternatives. "The point we're making is it doesn't do them any favours if you give them an insecure system to vote on," she said. 

Polli Brunelli, the program director of the Federal Voting Assistance Programme, was unavailable for comment. 

Fifty counties in seven states - Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Washington - were interested in participating in the Serve programme.

More than six million voters would have been eligible to participate, including uniformed personnel in the US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard and their dependents, as well as members of the merchant marine, the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and overseas citizens.

Todd R Weiss writes for Computerworld

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