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Is your vote secure? Many digital systems lack paper backups, study says.

Computerized systems in 16 states – including some swing states – have no paper backup ballots or other paper trails ‘in some or all counties,’ leaving the vote vulnerable, a national study says.

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In Florida's primary election in January, those counties had 140 overseas ballots returned using LiveBallot’s Web portal – Okaloosa having 99 such ballots, officials there report. Troops and others were able to mark ballots on their screens, then print them out. Although they still had to return their completed ballot by fax or mail, just downloading the blank ballot saved weeks.

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"So far this program is going really well," Mr. Lux says. "Really, one of the biggest fears of those who don't like Internet voting is that once the door is open to overseas voters, everyone is going to want to do it. Why can't I vote at home?"

Downloading blank ballots and registration forms is no problem: In fact, it’s to be encouraged, authors of the study say. It's sending a completed ballot back by e-fax systems or e-mail that poses a serious threat.

"We believe the most secure way to return a ballot would be through our military-grade encryption," maintains Ms. Steele of Everyone Counts. "Certainly there's nothing secure about the idea of returning ballots by fax or e-mail. Using that as a stopgap isn't a very good idea."

Others say online voting systems aren't likely to be truly secure anytime soon because Internet security hasn't advanced enough.

"If an Internet target is attractive enough, we know it can be targeted from anywhere in the world," says Ms. Smith of Verified Voting. "If a company with the resources of a Google or the Pentagon can't prevent themselves from being hacked, how likely is it that a small, medium, or even large election district would have the ability to safeguard the process?"

Few know that better than J. Alex Halderman, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 2010, as a test of the supposedly robust Internet voting-system defenses in Washington, D.C., he led a team of students that successfully hacked into the system in less than 48 hours.

Picking through thousands of lines of code, he and his team located a single errant punctuation mark in one line of code that enabled them to get into the system and decide who got “elected.” They changed every vote and knew how everyone had voted.

Could newer and even more-robust Internet-based voting systems be hacked and votes be changed to favor one candidate, with nobody the wiser?

"If there's no paper backup, then we're completely reliant on the software in that machine to do the right thing," Professor Halderman says. "The problem is that you have to get almost all the details right at a superhuman level of perfection to avoid leaving the door open to tampering with the election result."

"We bank online, and people tend to think that voting should be no problem, either," he adds. "But it's going to be a long time before we solve this problem. It's just a lot more difficult than online commerce. It's going to be decades, if ever, before we are able to vote online – securely."


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