A few tweaked votes can really make a difference: How will new options impact you and your vote?

Melissa Takaaze/Sun Star Reporter
November 13, 2012

At 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 6, UAF students braved the negative 20 degree temperatures, taking the campaign to the streets of Univeristy and College avenues where UAF Automotive Technician student Dayson Higgins waved signs for his father’s campaign for House District 5. “We need him in there. We need change,” said Dayson while holding four signs in support of Republican candidate Pete Higgins. Annie Bartholomew/Sun Star

Too busy to vote? Next time vote electronically.  Alaska is now one of the few U.S. states that allow all registered voters to request and submit ballots online.  Like anything transmitted online, there are security risks to consider.

Two weeks ago, Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell announced that all registered Alaskan voters can now vote electronically.  Approximately 30 U.S. states offer overseas and military voters this option, but now Alaska, like West Virginia and New Jersey, allows voters to cast their ballot through an online submission platform.

In Alaska, electronic voting is seems simple. The voter completes the application online, prints, signs and then faxes the form to the Division of Elections.  Within 48 hours, the applicant can log onto the online ballot system where they will receive a pdf of their ballot and an affidavit. The affidavit must be printed and signed by both the voter and a witness affirming the voter’s identity.  The ballot and the affidavit can then be uploaded to the online transmission system, and later retrieved by the Division of Elections.

In addition to the traditional paper-based absentee ballot, electronic transmission provides a fast and convenient option for the military, overseas voters and voters in areas recovering from natural disaster, like voters in New Jersey this year who had been hit by Hurricane Sandy.

Electronic voting could also benefit individuals with disabilities, especially those with mobility issues.  Voter turnout could potentially increase because voting could occur from the home or office.

Although convenient, online ballot transmission can be risky because there is no way to verify the identity of the person submitting a ballot.

In Alaska, where elections can be close and have been won by coin toss, any ballot modification could impact the outcome.  In the 2008 U.S. Senate race between Senator Ted Stevens and Mark Begich, Begich won by 1.3 percent of the vote or 3,953 votes, a small margin because the two candidates garnered 299,581 total combined votes.  Tampering in an election as large as a U.S. Senate race could affect the political power of the federal legislative branch by swaying which party gains or keeps control.

According to Alaska statute AS15.20.530, if two candidates are tied in number of votes, the successful candidate will be determined “by lot.” In the 2006 Democratic Primary for House District 37, incumbent Carl Moses and Bryce Edgmon tied with 767 votes.  Per the statute, the race was settled with a coin toss, which Edgmon won.

Catherine Reardon, a veteran poll watcher, emphasized that accountability is very important to ensure that the online ballot transmission system is fair and to help protect against possible computer malfunction and security breaches. She said  there should be a paper trail where a questionable ballot could be compared with a paper version to ensure that votes could be recounted and checked for accuracy.

There are potential security risks at every step of the online ballot transmission process.  An outsider with access to another person’s personal information could cast someone else’s vote by requesting, completing and submitting the ballot. Since the affidavit only requires that another individual sign and serve as witness, the person committing fraud could be both voter and witness.

Hacking is another serious security concern.   According to a press release from the Lt. Governor’s office, “Platforms for Alaska’s online ballot transmission are hosted in a dedicated secure data center behind a layer of redundant firewalls under constant physical and application monitoring to ensure the security of the system, vote privacy, and election integrity.”

The Division of Elections reaffirmed the security of the system by stating that the electronic transmission system is secure because of the redundant firewalls.  Unfortunately, redundant firewalls can be breached. Firewalls do provide some degree of protection but because they are programmable, they only target previously identified threats. If a certain threat has not been identified, multiple firewalls will not be anymore effective than a single firewall.

Hackers could modify or remove ballots as they are transmitted to the server. The main server, which holds all the ballots, could be breached, leading to potential modifications at an even greater scale, particularly since the pdf format of the ballots is easily modifiable.

There is also the potential danger of malware on a voter’s web browser, which could compromise the individual’s vote, or infiltrate the transmission system. Malware is picked up by visiting websites and can go undetected by the user.

Computer Science Professor Dr. Brian Hay said that because the scale is so small, electronically submitting votes is probably safe.  Hay noted when electronic transmission voting becomes more widespread, there will be a need for a more thorough re-evaluation of security and reassessment of risk management to ensure that protections are adequate.

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