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New reports cast doubt on Internet voting

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 2004

Computers are spreading into nearly every aspect of American life, but the door may have just slammed shut on them as they try to enter the polling booth. Two recent reports have called for pulling the plug on online voting unless serious security concerns are addressed. Many security experts say the flaws cannot be fixed.

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The new reports cast a harsh light on this Saturday's upcoming Democratic caucuses in Michigan, where many voters have already cast their ballots remotely using electronic voting.

All the current controversy has one big benefit, says Richard Valelly, a political science professor at Swarthmore (Pa.) College and a close observer of the American electoral system. "We're moving now to more of a point of debate about it [online voting]. And that's all to the good."

Some of harshest criticisms involve SERVE (the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment). Conducted by the Defense Department, SERVE is supposed to allow 100,000 Americans living abroad, including armed services personnel, to vote via the Internet in primaries and the November election. United States citizens abroad selected for the experiment could visit the SERVE website from any computer connected to the Internet and cast their ballots.

But a review of the SERVE system issued by four security experts Jan. 21 found serious risks of corruption. The report urged that SERVE be shut down and that voting via the Internet not be attempted at any time in the foreseeable future.

As a result, last week several organizations representing Americans living overseas, including the groups Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad, recommended that SERVE not be used in this year's elections, the Washington Post reported.

Meanwhile, a review of Maryland's online touch-screen voting system - initiated by the state last week - triggered more skepticism.

The system "contains considerable security risks that can cause moderate to severe disruption in an election," said RABA Technology, the firm employed to test the system. The risks were present even though the system is intended to be used at polling places and does not send information over the Internet, removing one major source of possible tampering.

The report did say that if certain fixes were made, the state's March primary election could be held using the machines. But it called for new security measures to be taken before the November general election, including adding a feature that would create paper receipts for voters.

The major hurdle for online voting is technical. Unlike, say, e-commerce, where amounts are pegged to a certain person, balloting systems have to count votes accurately and yet also preserve anonymity. Add the vagaries of the Internet, and the challenges of fraud prevention are huge.

"E-commerce-grade security is not good enough for public elections," says the review report of the SERVE overseas voting system. "[T]he existence of technology to provide adequate security for Internet commerce does not imply that Internet voting can be made safe."

The report confirms the conclusions of earlier studies by the California Secretary of State's Task Force on Internet Voting and the Internet Policy Institute, both of which found serious flaws in Internet voting schemes.