My concerns with black-box voting machines made Kuro5hin in February, but now there's a new voting method to worry about: the Department of Defense's Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE), a web-based Internet voting service which will be used in the upcoming presidential election.
Along with many other potential participants, I first heard about SERVE in notices like last month's American Consulate Hong Kong email newsletter:
Voting Information News
Voting goes "Internet" for Uniformed Services personnel and overseas citizens. Congress has mandated the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE) project be conducted to gather data and make recommendations regarding the use of the Internet for registration and voting by Uniformed Services personnel and overseas citizens. SERVE is an alternative to the by-mail process. The SERVE system will be available on January 1, 2004, for Uniformed Services personnel and overseas citizens to submit voter registration applications and absentee ballot requests for the 2004 primaries in the participating States and for the November 2 Presidential election. The participating States are Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington.
This leads the reader to SERVE's official site at serveusa.gov, which promises:
"In 2004, you can take part in an exciting new initiative called SERVE (Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment), which will let eligible U.S. citizens vote from any Windows-based computer with Internet access, anywhere in the world!"
"Voters can register and vote from anywhere in the world using any Windows-based PC that has either Internet Explorer 5.x and above or Netscape 6.x and above browser software. This can be from home, work, an Internet cafe, or wherever they are comfortable voting. Citizens will receive a SERVE digital certificate as their identification and authentication credential."
Interesting, but what's this about the Department of Defense? They're mandated by law to run the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which helps overseas military personnel and expats vote. But if this Windows-based solution (apparently combining Versign certificates, public-key cryptography, DoD webservers, and local county election officials) is judged successful in 2004, could more states would feel compelled to sign on, leading perhaps to SERVE technology being used domestically some day?
That's what Accenture seems to be betting on, in creating its new "eDemocracy Services" business unit (and acquiring "election.com"):
"To serve DoD clients and others in the government, Accenture launched a new business called eDemocracy Services that is focused on delivering services to election agencies around the world.
... 'We created our elections practice in response to the market need that emerged following the 2000 elections, and we continue to see tremendous global business opportunities in the election industry,' said Steven J. Rohleder, group chief executive of Accenture's Government operating group."
What a great, global business opportunity for Accenture! Finally, private companies are helping the US to "export democracy." Personally, I find the idea of the DoD overseeing elections a bit creepy, and also don't know what to think about them choosing Arthur Andersen's surviving sibling to make online voting a reality. But Accenture does have experience: it developed Florida's new central voter registration database for 2002, and is also working on e-voting in the UK.
Sure, it's perfectly natural for companies to pony up to meet demand from election officials for new technology. But hiring private companies to develop the infrastructure for our democracy will certainly frighten the conspiracy-minded among us. Bev Harris at Black Box Voting paints a picture of touchscreen voting machine makers as secretive, corrupt, not particularly concerned with security, and too politically connected. SERVE, however, is a federal program headed by Accenture, with subcontractors Hart InterCivic, VeriSign, Avanade and AFFINA, all companies with hopefully better business standards (and not dependent on greasing county officials' palms). But beyond conspiracy theories, the question remains: can we trust the technology to be tamper-proof?
SERVE's FAQ provides many technical details intended to assuage security concerns. But many, like Stanford professor David Dill of VerifiedVoting.org, believe that Internet voting simply cannot be made secure with current technology. "It is worse than DREs [the touch-screen black-box machines Dill campaigns against] ... This program must be modified somehow to use paper ballots," he wrote to me by email. "Otherwise, it is going to be a disaster."
Unfortunately, I'm no longer living abroad, so I won't be able to click-n-vote for the president next year. However, if opportunities in the election industry are as "tremendous" as Accenture believes, perhaps I won't have to wait too long.
Federal Computer Week article
National Journal's Technology Daily article
SERVE official site
InternetNews.com: DoD Votes for Accenture's eDemocracy
Federal Voter Assistance Program (DoD-run)