Verified Voting Blog: Disappointing Reversal on Transparency and Security for Washington Elections

A bill aimed at reducing restriction to voting for military and other overseas voters passed the Washington State Senate by a 47-1 vote on Friday.  Senate Bill 5171 contains many provisions that will certainly make voting easier for Washington citizens living overseas including moving the primary election date two weeks earlier and meeting requirements of the Federal MOVE Act for mailing of absentee ballots 45 days prior to the election. We strongly support those provisions.

However, the bill also will allow for the acceptance of absentee ballots returned by email and fax. In addition to requiring, by affidavit, that voters returning their ballots electronically forego the secrecy of their ballot, it also makes the state’s elections vulnerable to tampering and error.

It is deeply disappointing that Secretary of State Sam Reed has actively supported this legislation. No one experienced the 2004 Gregoire/Rossi gubernatorial recount process more directly than Secretary Reed. That race, ultimately decided by 133 votes, stretched the issue of voter confidence to its absolute limits, and Secretary Reed, to his credit, did what he could to be available through and transparent about every step of the recount process. But the involved parties could not review voters’ intent for over 113,000 ballots, because at that time, Washington State used paperless electronic voting machines in two of the larger counties. The only votes that could be truly recounted were the paper ballots.

With the experience of the 2004 recount under its belt, supported by Secretary Reed, Washington has moved consistently towards a more recountable voting system statewide. In 2004, Mr. Reed called for voter-verified paper records for every vote cast, so that “voters who cast ballots electronically can verify that their selections have been recorded properly using a paper audit trail” saying that the new policy was all about “ensuring voter trust.” Yet SB 5171 will overturn that policy for military and overseas voters.

Until now, military and overseas ballots have been verifiable and recountable, even those sent via fax, because voters sent the original of the ballot they faxed. If SB5171 becomes law as it is currently written, all military and overseas personnel (not just those deployed in areas with no access to mail) would be allowed to vote using email, with no hard copy return required. No military voter using email will have a secret ballot and no military voter using email will have any way to know that the ballot received by the county — if it was received — represented their votes at all. Even more critically, this could represent a sizeable set of unrecountable ballots, potentially 200 times the official margin of victory following the 2004 recount.

When an earlier online voting project was cancelled by the Department of Defense in 2004 because of security issues with the Internet, Secretary Reed said he trusted the DoD decision not to implement Internet voting, saying: “The integrity of the voting process is critical and any process used must meet the highest standard.” Nothing about the Internet’s security has improved since then, and email is the worst of several bad options for casting ballots over that same Internet. With a plan that will take away the right of our men and women in uniform to vote in secrecy, and permit their votes to traverse the least secure channels, Washington’s formerly high standards for election integrity take a giant step backward.

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