Internet voting project cost Pentagon $73,809 per vote

Details about the two-and-a-half-year project come as the concept of cyberspace voting takes a beating

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A pilot Internet voting project to encourage voter participation by Americans abroad cost the Pentagon $6.2 million and received high marks from its director, although it delivered only 84 votes in the November election and failed to address a key security concern, the Center for Public Integrity has learned.

Details about the two-and-a-half-year project come as the concept of cyberspace voting is taking a beating. A cadre of experts, including a national commission charged with improving the federal election process and the Pentagon itself, is questioning its feasibility because of the inherent lack of security on the Internet.

The "Voting Over the Internet Pilot Project" was overseen by the Defense Departments Federal Voting Assistance Program. It was an effort to improve voter participation for soldiers and overseas workers. Approximately 6 million Americans live overseas but are eligible to cast votes in the United States, according to an estimate by the Federal Election Commission.

Americans overseas vote by mailing in absentee ballots, a time-consuming and, at times, frustrating process. A 1996 post-election survey showed that approximately one-fourth of all military voters said they did not vote because their ballots did not arrive in time to be counted.

Votes cast in four states

The Voting Over the Internet Pilot Project was used in four states: South Carolina, Okaloosa and Orange counties in Florida, and in Dallas County, Texas, and Weber County, Utah.

In Florida, where overseas ballots were a critical issue in deciding the presidential election last November, there was more interest than in any other participating states. Of the 84 votes cast, 52 were from the Sunshine State. Okaloosa County received the most e-ballots of all the voting locations with 38 and Orange County was second with 14.

Pilot project volunteers were members of the U.S. armed forces.

The participants downloaded software that provided access to the Pentagon's "public key" system, a method the Pentagon uses to send encrypted messages worldwide. Voters also mailed backup paper ballots. Participants registered and voted using personal computers from home or work.

The Defense Department contracted out some of the work to Booz-Allen & Hamilton, a global management and technology consulting firm, and Computer Sciences Corp., an information technology firm. Neither had previous experience with Internet voting projects, but both have done tens of millions of dollars of work for the Pentagon. The companies performed the work as part of larger, competitively bid contracts, but the Internet project itself was not competitively bid.

Project directors allowed for a maximum of 250 voters to cast ballots, but only 84 participated.

"That's a lot of money for 84 votes," Atlanta elections lawyer Hans von Spakovsky said of the pilot project. Von Spakovsky is a member of the Fulton County elections board and is on the national advisory board of the Voting Integrity Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to voter rights and election integrity issues. Von Spakovsky was concerned about the security of the system.

While the pilot project tested against hackers infiltrating the voting systems servers, von Spakovsky said it did not take into consideration the actual personal computers used to cast ballots.

"Everyone is really concerned if people are using either their home PCs or a PC at their office to cast a vote," he said. "The security on those kinds of PCs is often minimal." That's why viruses like the notorious "Code Red," which on July 19 infected more than 250,000 computer systems in just nine hours, are so successful, he added.

In California, a task force rejected the Internet voting concept, fearing that it would be too easy to distribute a "Trojan horse" virus, possibly via e-mail, to voters computers, according to security experts. It could potentially lie in wait and direct Internet voting software to place votes without the voter being aware.

A Pentagon spokesman told The New York Times well before the election that voting would be conducted from "virus-free" computers. But as von Spakovsky discovered at a presentation in Atlanta in January by the Federal Voting Assistance Program, that was not the case.

"I was astonished when they made their presentation here in Atlanta and it turned out they had not done that at all," he said.

Project directors acknowledged there were no efforts to ensure that the home computers were virus-free, but said there was no evidence of problems there. Such critics as von Spakovsky say the potential would be much greater if the system were expanded.

Rebecca Mercuri, an electronic vote tabulation specialist who founded the Notable Software consulting firm in Philadelphia, is an ardent critic of Internet voting. "The Internet itself is not secure," she said. "So there is no way you can make the product secure." Even encrypted messages are not safe when a computer is vulnerable to contamination, another expert noted.

One of the biggest knocks against voting by computer is that it potentially excludes minority and low-income voters. "I'd rather see more money spent on sociological problems as opposed to spending $6.2 million" on Internet pilot programs, Mercuri said.

Despite the seeming high cost, program managers were pleased with the results. Federal Voting Assistance Program Director Polli Brunelli, in her introduction to a report on the project only recently released, called it a "groundbreaking event" and "an exemplary case study of effective collaboration by federal, state and local government; industry; and private citizens."

Brunelli could not be reached for comment, but defenders of the project say it is unfair to say the government paid almost $74,000 for each vote. The true task was to assess whether the technology existed for Internet voting, and in that regard, it was a success, they said. In particular, accommodating representatives from four different states with four different sets of election laws was especially challenging.

Time . . . has not come

The report comes as many voting technology experts are questioning the wisdom of voting over the Internet.

On July 31, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, led by former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, released its final report on issues related to improving the process and administration of federal elections. The report argued against voting over the Internet, citing technical and security dangers.

"This is an idea whose time most certainly has not yet come," the commission wrote.

Even the Pentagon is showing reservations.

David O. Cooke, director of administration and management in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, told a House Armed Services subcommittee in May that the Internet should be reserved for registration and not voting.

"Although our pilot project demonstrated that remote registration and voting over the Internet is a secure, viable alternative in a small-scale, tightly controlled environment, there are a number of security concerns in expanding to a larger population at this time," his prepared statement reads.

In addition, the Department of Defense Inspector Generals audit examining overseas ballot-handling, released in June, was also less than optimistic. "Although widespread Internet voting may not become a reality in the near future, FVAP should explore other opportunities for technological solutions to absentee voting problems."

The report did not address the pilot projects cost.

The Pentagon project is not the first foray into Internet voting. The Alaska Republican Party used Internet voting in January 2000 to run a straw poll on presidential candidates. Only 35 of the 4,430 Republican voters cast their votes via the Internet. That poll was conducted by VoteHere, an online voting company based in Bellevue, Wash. And in March 2000 in Arizona, voters used the first legally binding Internet election for the Democratic presidential primaries.

Jennifer Curley, director of government affairs for VoteHere, said the Defense Departments pilot project is a "great first step. Anything that furthers the concept of Internet voting is a great first step. I will say I think the cost can come down, and we can do this considerably, considerably cheaper."

At least one more government report is due on the feasibility of Internet voting. After the presidential election debacle in Florida, Congress asked the General Accounting Office to examine state election laws and practices and how they compare in minimizing fraud, error and irregularities. Among the issues to be examined is Internet voting.

That report is due in September.