Growing number of states turn to cloud-based e-ballots for military and overseas voters

Following the 2000 presidential elections and the Supreme Court case Gore v. Bush, national and global attention was fixed upon the state of US voting technology, or lack thereof.

“The punch cards and ‘hanging chads’ created an awareness that the foundation of our democracy was jeopardized by out of date technology and systems,” says Bryan Finney, president and founder of Democracy Live, inc. Mr. Finney’s company provides a suite of online voter information resources, from videos to web-based voter guides and pamphlets.

After 2000, Finney said there was a rush to modernize the nation’s voting systems, which resulted in the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) with dedicated funding. “HAVA funded all these e-voting machines, which helped, but certain populations were left out of the process: military, overseas citizens, those with disabilities. And many of those people were concerned about not providing a paper trail.”

Mr. Finney says the 2010 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, which requires states to make provisions for electronic voter registration and ballot requests, addressed long-standing problems facing Americans living abroad.

“GIs in Kandahar may be fighting for our right to vote, but ironically they’re the ones disenfranchised. It was really a significant issue for expats and military.”

In response to the new legislation, Democracy Live teamed with Microsoft to launch LiveBallot – an application that allows U.S. citizens to register for absentee ballots securely, track ballot progress and receive notification when their vote has been counted. LiveBallot is built on the Widowns Azure platform and it exemplifies the best qualities of cloud computing, Kimberly Nelson, director of government solutions for Microsoft State and Local Public Sector Innovation, said.

“Something like elections only happen a few times a year,” Ms. Nelson said. Governments don’t have the budgets to invest in such limited term hardware and software, she added. “With the cloud, they don’t have to do that and they know it will scale no matter what. And the states only pay for what they use.”

“We all know that governments are in austerity mode – looking to cut costs. There’s nothing more cyclical than elections, and to think that counties should include servers for something that’s used a few times a year doesn’t make sense,” Finny added.

Currently around 300 jurisdictions use LiveBallot with “literally tens of thousands of ballots already sent out,” Finney said. “We have voters that are using LiveBallot from 58 countries – Ghana to Sweden, Kandahar to Kansas.”

Recently, the District of Columbia embarked upon an open source experiment that would have allowed overseas voters to not only receive ballots online, but submit votes through the Internet as well. The idea has been around since Gore v. Bush, but my industry experts say that online voting is simply too risky. And as CivSource reported, DC’s efforts were stalled when a group of computer scientists from the University of Michigan hacked the system during a pilot project.

Although both lauded DC’s efforts, Mr. Finney said the market demand for all electronic, no paper trail, solutions has not matured. And Ms. Nelson said a lot more work still has to be done to build standards and minimum requirements. “At some point in time we will be voting online… [But] there’s a risk of doing a disservice to voters,” she said.

But Mr. Finney says not to underestimate the power of electronic access as a component of the voting process. “Although we’re not yet submitting electronic ballots, there’s a lot of power and savings to access ballots online.”

“LiveBallot allows government officials to run elections, count ballots, and not be distracted by other tech issues,” Ms. Nelson suggested. “Government can focus on getting elections processed right and experts focus on getting the technology right.”

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