WASHINGTON, June 4 (UPI) -- More than two years after the most contentious election in U.S. history, the Defense Department will test a new method of voting over the Internet for absentee ballot voters in the military or living overseas.
The experiment will take place during the 2004 presidential general and primary elections with voters protected under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.
The department hopes to limit the number of absentee ballots thrown out and significantly increase voting rates.
American voting participants from all over the world will be able to register and cast their vote in the 2004 election from any Windows-based computer with Internet access, said Carol Paquette, program manager of DoD's Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment, which is known as SERVE.
Instead of having to send their absentee ballots in the mail, voters will be able to register on the Internet with a "digital signature" to confirm their identity. The voter will then select their candidates on their computers during the dates allotted to absentee ballot voters, Paquette said.
"The mail just doesn't do it," said Paquette of getting ballots in on time. "Not only in the U.S., but you also have to consider the quality of the foreign mail service."
Although the 2000 election highlighted the problems of absentee balloting and the frequency of errors in the process, this is certainly not the first time the problems have arisen, said Sam Wright, military voting rights project director for the National Defense Committee, a private organization.
"The problem with absentee ballots didn't just come up in the 2000 election, it was just a big deal since the vote was so close," Wright said. "This is a very old problem."
The problems associated with absentee ballots include voting rates and the disenfranchisement of those who do vote.
Instead of simply discounting an absentee ballot improperly filed or filed too late, voting over the Internet allows the election officials to e-mail the voter and ask for a corrected ballot, Wright said.
Voting online also takes the onus off of the mail system. The ballots are received instantly instead of waiting sometimes weeks at a time for the mail to be delivered.
Wright, who facilitated a voting survey for absentee ballots in Florida for 2000, said there was an average disenfranchisement rate of about 50 percent -- but some counties had a rate of 100 percent.
Before all absentee voters can use the Internet, it must be proven to be safe against Internet fraud.
"There will be some reluctance to accept this due to the fear of error or fraud on the Internet," said Shawn Parry-Giles, director of the Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland.
Officials said the security system would prevent computer hackers from corrupting the results of Internet absentee ballots. It would also guard against someone voting on behalf of someone else with security measures such as digital signatures.
SERVE plans to protect the absentee ballots with a number of mechanisms and security features including digital signatures, centralized servers, encryption, peer review and network denial of service mitigation, officials said.
The system has been examined by outside government agencies including the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency, the Secretary of Defense, and the Institute of Standards and Technologies, Paquette said.
"Security is everyone's first question about Internet voting, so we made security the driving factor in the SERVE system design," said Federal Voting Assistant Program Director Polli Brunelli in a statement.
SERVE will conduct the experiment, a congressionally mandated project, under the FVAP. SERVE officials expect the system to be finished by this fall and prepared to complete certification testing by a contractor yet to be chosen.
The primary contractor responsible for facilitating the 2004 election experiment is consulting firm Accenture with subcontractors working under it.
All 50 states were contacted to take part in the experiment, but the only states expected to participate are Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Washington. The states will be confirmed by the end of June, Paquette said.
Although Pennsylvania had not officially committed to the experiment, Brian McDonald, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation, said that it sounds advantageous to attract more voters.
"This will enable military personnel overseas to have their voices heard," McDonald said. "It's obviously going to bring more numbers to the polling places."
Once the experiment is completed, the FVAP will report the results by June 2005 to Congress.
If the experiment is successful, Wright said the use of the Internet for absentee ballots might be a "real option" for the 2008 presidential election.
Before paper absentee ballots can be thrown out though, Parry Giles points to the reluctance of Republicans to pass the Motor Voter Bill as an example of how passing Internet voting could be bogged down in legislation.
"Typically when it is made easier for people to vote and voting rates rise, it benefits the Democrats and hurts Republicans," Parry-Giles said.
This isn't the first time FVAP has experimented with the use of the Internet in absentee balloting.
The DoD-sponsored program launched a pilot experiment during the 2000 election, which became notorious for the handling of absentee ballots -- especially in Florida. The pilot experiment only had 84 subjects in select counties from four states, said.
Defense officials said they hope to have 100,000 people participate in the 2004 experiment between the primary and general elections.
"After only getting 84 people, I think they were embarrassed about what happened in 2000 so they have a real incentive for 2004," Wright said.