After poor showing in tally, state considers electronic voting for service members

Hartford - For American service members overseas, trying to vote can be more of an exercise in bureaucracy than in democracy.

"I witnessed service members receiving ballots days after the election had ended," former Navy Lt. Emily Trudeau, a Connecticut resident who worked as a voting assistance officer in Iraq and Japan, told a legislative panel in February.

She went on to list other problems: "service members receiving ballots that were so illegible or a poor copy that they were impossible to read, let alone fill in and submit; service members who had their ballots returned as undeliverable."

And in Connecticut, nearly 40 percent of ballots that soldiers said they had submitted never arrived to elections offices in a survey conducted in conjunction with the Connecticut Military Department, said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford.

To make sure military members' votes are counted, Connecticut lawmakers are considering proposals that would allow them to vote via email or fax. Improvements in Internet security technology have made electronic voting more feasible, but legislators are weighing privacy and security concerns.

The military's email system is a viable alternative to postal mail, said Slossberg, a proponent of one of the bills.

She said 28 states permit military members to submit ballots electronically and have not reported problems. In the 2012 general election, New Jersey also allowed first responders and residents displaced by Superstorm Sandy to vote by email.

"I would rather err on the side of giving our soldiers the right to vote than shutting the door on them for something that might or might not happen and certainly has not happened in any other state," said Slossberg.

But email voting raises concerns over reliability and authentication, said Alexander Shvartsman, professor of computer science at UConn.

"When you receive an email with a ballot in whatever form," he said, "there is no guarantee that the actual voter sent the ballot."

Hackers could also threaten electronic voting, he said, by inundating servers with bogus emails that cannot be distinguished from authentic ones.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill cautioned that more information is needed about electronic voting.

"We have very little data about this," she said. "We don't really know what the problem is. Where is the sticking point and whose fault is it, if there is one?"

Merrill also worries that a system in which military members would have to sacrifice the privacy of their vote would open the door to intimidation by superiors and fraud.

"We fought long and hard to get privacy of the vote," she said and suggested that permitting people to waive that right could create a "slippery slope."

She supports one of the bills before the legislature, which would permit electronic transmission of blank ballots and would enable voters to track their ballots. It would not, however, allow ballots to be submitted electronically. Twelve states and Washington, D.C., have adopted similar bills.

Merrill said tracking would generate data to help policymakers identify why some ballots arrive late.

Improving current practices, suggested Merrill and others, would be wiser than introducing uncertainty and risk to the electoral process.

One source of delay, she said, could be the military postal service agency, which is charged with returning ballots from outposts around the world within seven days. A report prepared by the agency showed 8 percent of those ballots arrived after election day in 2010.

An overhaul of that process would require federal intervention, which Merrill and Slossberg said they would welcome.

Until then, Slossberg said, the state must act. All three bills have passed early committee votes and may be taken up by the full legislature before June.

"This is a proven way to ensure that votes get counted," she said.


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