Verified Voting Blog: One Solution – Delivering Blank Ballots via Internet

As noted in Part One of this series, one of the goals of the MOVE Act is to improve access to election materials such as voter registration forms and blank ballots. Examining why (and ignoring voter registration for the moment), we see that there are two parts to the process of voting from an overseas location: 1) obtaining a blank absentee ballot, and 2) returning the voted ballot. The first problem, obtaining a blank ballot, should be refined a bit – part of the problem for overseas voters is obtaining a blank ballot with sufficient time for it to be returned within state designated absentee ballot deadlines. And one way to solve this part of the problem is to send blank ballots to military and overseas voters via the Internet.

Recent surveys of military and overseas voters show the extent of the problem of non-receipt, or late receipt, of blank ballots. In their February 2009 report, 2008 OVF Post Election UOCAVA Survey Report And Analysis, the Overseas Voting Foundation reported:

“Our research indicates that in 2008, two out of every five (39%) of voters received their ballots during the second half of October or later, which is too late to guarantee return in a timely manner. This finding represents an increase from the one in four (25%) who reported receiving late ballots in 2006 mid-term election…

Furthermore, 6% of survey participants did not send in their official ballots. Among voters who did not return their ballots, more than half (52%) cited the chief reason as “late ballot receipt.” This is consistent with the findings of the 2004 and 2006 OVF Post Election surveys. The results of three post election surveys show one common reason for not voting: I didn’t get my ballot on time.

The EAC, in an April 2010 Report to Congress, found a large percentage of military and overseas voters (referred to in the report as UOCAVA voters, for the 1986 Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) :

” Notwithstanding EAC and many other groups’ efforts, UOCAVA voters still do not participate in elections at the same rate as the general population. For example, EAC’s 2008 Election Day survey shows that in the 2008 General Election, approximately 1 million UOCAVA ballots were transmitted by States to overseas voters. While some 680,000 of these ballots were returned and submitted for counting by voters, over 300,000 remained unreturned, returned as undeliverable or spoiled, or were otherwise unaccounted for.”

Earlier, Senator Charles Schumer said in 2008 that the Senate Rules committee, using the same data as the later EAC report, found that for seven states with high numbers of military personnel (California, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and West Virginia):

“…military personnel and some civilians hailing from these states requested 441,000 ballots in order to vote from overseas locations, as allowed by UOCAVA. Of those, 98,633 were never received back by the election officials in the U.S. and so were declared “lost” ballots”.

It’s clear that there is a real problem getting blank absentee ballots to overseas voters. It’s not hard to see why. Military personnel are often stationed in different physical locations from their mailing address, and move frequently. Once received at the main base, mail may be delivered sporadically, sometimes on a space available basis, to outlying posts. And by time a ballot is received at the outlying post, the soldier may have already moved to yet another location, resulting in the ballot never actually catching up to the voter. Civilians working or traveling in remote locations depend on the local postal service, which may be subject to long waits and intermittent delivery of mail. County Boards of Elections may delay mailing absentee ballots, leaving insufficient time for UOCAVA voter to receive it. With so many ways for a blank ballot to reach a voter too late, or not reach them at all, the MOVE Act requires electronic delivery of blank absentee ballots. The legislation calls for online distribution of voting materials (i.e., voter registration forms, blank ballots and other election information), but not for the return of voted ballots via the Internet.

Two easy ways to provide blank ballots using the Internet is to send them directly to the voter as an email attachment, or provide downloadable copies from a website. In either case, the voter prints the blank ballot directly from their computer, literally reducing the time required to receive a ballot from weeks to minutes. Because blank ballots should contain no confidential information that could be compromised, securing them adequately is possible using techniques available today (providing one is careful not to include any personal information about the recipient such as social security numbers). Since ballots contain different contests depending on the voter’s home address, that address is all the information that needs to be collected in order to provide a voter with a blank ballot in the correct style. Providing that the local election office is not restricting access to blank ballots to one per voter, it isn’t necessary to authenticate that the person requesting the ballot actually lives at that address. Why? Because for elections, it’s essential to authenticate a voter’s identity – that they are who they say they are – when the vote is cast, not when a blank ballot is sent.

Delivering blank ballots and other election materials is a responsible way to use the Internet to vastly improve ballot access for UOCAVA voters. The survey data clearly shows that problems receiving blank ballots cause a large number of lost votes, so providing Internet delivery of these ballots is a surefire way to make many more of these votes count. And it’s equally clear that sending blank ballots electronically can dramatically reduce absentee ballot delivery times. So there is a way to use the Internet to vastly improve access to blank ballots. The next part of the problem, returning voted ballots, has several solutions, including the MOVE requirement that states allow a 45 day period for ballot return. But as to the question of whether we can safely use the Internet for voted ballot return, security experts say that without changing the way the Internet currently works – no way, no how.

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