New Jersey’s decision to allow voters displaced by superstorm Sandy to cast ballots by e-mail has prompted a flood of warnings over security, secrecy and a potential for legal entanglements.
State officials in New Jersey announced the plan on Saturday, saying it could help victims of the unprecedented storm, along with rescuers who may also be unable to get to polling places.
The northeast state is allowing voters to request a ballot by e-mail or fax to their county clerk, and returning their ballot by the same means by 8pm yesterday.
New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno said the move was designed “to help alleviate pressure on polling places.”
However, some experts say e-mail voting, which is being allowed by some states for military and overseas voters, has not been tested on a large scale and opens up technical and legal obstacles.
E-mail ballots could be vulnerable to hacking or computer viruses and could put the election at risk, said Matt Blaze, a University of Pennsylvania computer scientist specializing in security.
“The security implications of voting by e-mail are, under normal conditions, more than sufficient to make any computer security specialist recoil in horror,” Blaze said in a blog post.
“E-mail, of course, is not at all authenticated, reliable or confidential, and that by itself opens the door to new forms of election mischief that would be far more difficult in a traditional in-person polling station or with paper absentee ballot,” he wrote.
However, Blaze said that because of the exceptional circumstances, “the question is whether these risks outweigh the benefits, and whether the technical and procedural safeguards that are in place are adequate.”
“All of this is relatively uncharted territory,” Blaze added.
Princeton University computer scientist Andrew Appel said that “Internet voting is inherently insecure” and that “e-mail is the most insecure form of Internet voting.”
Appel said voters’ e-mails “can be modified or interfered with without their knowledge” and that in this case “voters have to waive their right to a secret ballot.”
Rutgers University law professor Penny Venetis said some activists have been urging the state to require the same backup used for overseas or military voters — paper ballots mailed in to be compared with the electronic ballot.
If this is required, it would mean the e-mail vote is “unnecessary,” because the vote would only be counted when a paper ballot is received, Venetis said.
Venetis said that without the paper requirement, “votes will be made insecure and we believe challengeable.”
Pam Smith of the Verified Voting Foundation, which has long opposed electronic voting without paper backup, said a better solution for New Jersey residents would be to advise them of their right to vote at any polling place that is open.
“You can vote at any polling place in New Jersey and you won’t lose privacy,” she said.
New York State Board of Elections co-chair Doug Kellner said his state opted against e-mail voting because of “a consensus among senior election officials” that this would be “completely insecure.”
However, Richard Soudriette, a former election monitor who heads the Colorado-based Center for Diplomacy and Democracy, praised New Jersey for “a very ingenious solution to an almost impossible problem.”
Soudriette said e-mail voting “wouldn’t pass the test under normal circumstances, but obviously this is an abnormal circumstance and given the challenges they have, it makes sense.”
Soudriette said New Jersey’s experience needs to be studied, but said if it works, “it could move the United States forward in terms of acceptance of Internet voting.”