In 2009, Congress passed the Military and Overseas Voting Empowerment (MOVE) Act to modernize overseas and military voting policies. Specifically,  the law requires the states should offer an option to voters to receive blank ballots by electronic means, that is by fax, email attachment, or direct download.

Now, in 2010, approximately 16 states are allowing overseas and/or military voters to return their voted ballots by scanning them in and attaching the file to an email.

Many voting advocates – including Overseas Vote Foundation – say these 16 have carried a good intention too far and in the wrong direction. We want to explain why we think so, but we also want to hear from you, the overseas or military voter.

How many of you think that the ability to email back your ballots means you will vote more regularly?

But, first, hear us out on why we recommend that you return your voted ballot by regular mail.

(We thank Dr. David Jefferson, election integrity expert and professor of Computer Science at the University of Southern California, for helping us prepare this summary.)
 
Technical Problems

  • Emails get lost and it may be days – days beyond the deadline – before you realize it. They get dumped into spam boxes. And overzealous email servers sometimes copy them and deliver more than one of the same.

Security Problems

  • That From: line can be forged.
  • Most email users don’t know how to encrypt their email and this means it can be copied, read, and modified anywhere at any of the several servers along the path from you to your election official.

Political Problems

  • Some of those servers are owned by government agencies or corporations in other countries. If your email passes through their relay point, it might be tempting to copy it and sneak a peek.

And a hacker or denial of service attack on a particular server could be easily automated because the destinations – the email addresses of those election officials – are necessarily public information.

Read this related blog posting for a more detailed analysis of these risks from Dr. Jefferson and Professor Ronald Rivest, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Remember that one hacked ballot could mean a long and expensive effort to restage a corrupted election.

Perhaps your response to all this is still: “At least it'd be easier to vote.”

Also a good point!

But we think this is the wrong debate: it's not really about being able to return the ballots the day of the election. It's about getting the ballot early enough to return it by mail.

We know from our Post Election Surveys (2004, 2006, 2008) that a lot of people drop out of the voting process because their ballots arrive too late or not at all.

For example, during this state primary season, OVF volunteer and Texas voter Lanny M. in Colombia reported to us on March 15 that his ballot for the March 2 Texas State Primary still hadn’t arrived…even though he’d confirmed that his election offical had sent it the very day his ballot request was received.

What Lanny wants from his state is the ability to download a blank ballot in .pdf format so that he can vote two or three weeks before the election, time enough for it to be delivered by mail.

For voters like Lanny, the problem is the total transit time for a ballot. If you can just download the ballot, then the round-trip is cut in half. (Our Express Your Vote partnership with FedEx is not available where Lanny lives.)

The MOVE Act does address exactly this question: it requires the states to provide electronic delivery of blank ballots -- fax, email, website -- and it requires all the states to accept the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot.

These measures are not due to be fully implemented, however, until the November 2010 General Elections; their impact has not yet been fully measured by voters or election officials.

This is why those 16 well-intentioned states are jumping too far ahead too fast and, furthermore, spending resources that could be better used on easy-to-use registration tools and voter outreach. 

(We recognize that military voters stationed at sea or on the front lines have special needs that might require the ability to email ballots.)

We want the security risks associated with emailing voted ballots to be understood and carefully weighed before states turn to it as a broad-based solution but our team -- and election officials -- need to hear from you.

Emailed ballots: an acceptable trade-off or a step too far? Please comment!