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New Jersey’s emergency email voting is a risky experiment, warn experts

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Tomorrow’s election is coming, and there’s nothing New Jersey can do to postpone it. So to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which left millions in the Northeast without power and forced many to evacuate from their homes, state officials decided late on Saturday to allow displaced citizens to vote using email or fax. Citizens who want to vote remotely can request a ballot via phone or email, and then return a completed ballot via email or fax to their county clerk’s office. As Lt. Governor Kim Guadango explains, "the State of New Jersey is committed to holding a fair, open, transparent, and accessible election on Tuesday." The order seems well-intended, and could make voting more accessible for many citizens, but experts are concerned that email voting forces voters to give up their anonymity, that votes submitted by email may not be counted, and that security vulnerabilities could allow the election to be manipulated.

Remote internet voting is controversial in the United States. For more than a decade, security experts have warned about the possibility of hacking and other attacks to disrupt an election or tamper with the results, with even the most secure polling systems imaginable being vulnerable to various network attacks like denial-of-service or hacking. Writing about the most ambitious remote internet voting effort in the last decade, security experts said that the vulnerabilities are not limited to specific systems, but "are fundamental in the architecture of the internet and of the PC hardware and software that is ubiquitous today." And while some internet protocols may be more secure than others, when it comes to voting, email isn't one of them.

"There are compelling reasons for New Jersey officials to to act quickly."

As secure systems expert Matt Blaze wrote yesterday, "the security implications of voting by email are, under normal conditions, more than sufficient to make any computer security specialist recoil in horror." Of course, natural disasters are not normal conditions, and Blaze acknowledges that "there are compelling reasons for New Jersey officials to to act quickly to create viable, flexible, secure, and reliable voting options for their citizens in this emergency." However, he says the vote-by-email option, while admittedly flexible, is dangerously insecure and unreliable.

Princeton University Professor Andrew Appel shares some of Blaze's security concerns, and said today on a Verified Voting conference call that "email is the most insecure form of voting." Citing common security vulnerabilities like spoofing, Appel says "it’s really easy for a spammer to alter an outgoing email," and "it’s hard to tell who emails are really from." He also says that personal computers aren’t just at risk, and that that the state’s computers may be vulnerable. "Emails will be received by email county computers that really aren’t very different from other small business computers," he says. "Voters emails can be modified or altered without their knowledge coming into those computers." (Indeed, New Jersey is already balking at internet-based systems — a 2010 order from Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg required the state’s 11,000 voting machines to be disconnected from from the internet for security reasons). Blaze says it’s not just an insecure system, but a fragile one: he says the system could be vulnerable to denial-of-service attacks, crashed email servers, and even zero day attacks. There’s also the issue of a digital divide between voters: what happens to people who don’t have scanners, or compatible hardware, or internet access?

Vote-by-email in New Jersey could open up legal challenges after the election

And even if remote voting via email proves viable — meaning there are no security problems and all the votes are counted — emailed votes may not be strictly legal. With 2012 already showing echoes of the hotly contested 2000 election, legal wrangling over even a small number of votes could once again affect the outcome. Penny Venetis, Clinical Professor of Law at the Rutgers University School of Law, says that New Jersey is in uncharted territory, legally, and isn’t sure whether emailed votes could be challenged after November 6th. The state’s directive is a legal hack using an existing law that allows military members and other citizens overseas to submit ballots electronically. It temporarily designates displaced voters as "overseas voters," though it does not specify what exactly constitutes a "displaced voter." (An Essex county clerk told NBC 4 New York that the program is being run on an "honor system" that relies on voters only to vote by email if they can’t get to their polling place). Despite the ambiguity, Lt. Governor Guadango encourages voters to use electronic voting "to help alleviate pressure on polling places."

Voters who submit an electronic ballot but fail to also submit a paper ballot may have their votes rejected

So far, New Jersey has struggled with basic communication over options and procedures: as Appel wrote yesterday, Lt. Governor Guadagno’s original directive, if followed by voters and county clerks, would have rendered their votes invalid. New Jersey law requires those who cast a remote electronic vote to also mail a paper copy of their original ballot to their county board of elections. So far, the Governor’s office has not clarified this in an updated directive. Venetis says that she has been "working with the Lt. Governor’s office to try to change the directive, and unfortunately that has not happened." As a result of the confusion, voters who submit an electronic ballot but fail to also submit a paper ballot may have their votes rejected.

"The truth is you can vote in-person at any polling place in New Jersey."

So what can New Jersey voters do to make sure their ballots are counted? Pamela Smith, president of the non-profit Verified Voting foundation, recommends that voters use alternative methods if at all possible. Smith says "the truth is you can vote in-person at any polling place in New Jersey," and that "you won’t lose privacy." (Voters who submit their ballot online must sign a waiver forfeiting their secrecy in the election). "It’s very important that you get to a polling place, even if it’s not the one you go to," Smith says. "If you can’t vote in person, then get an absentee ballot and get it to the post office today."

Despite the potential for election mishaps, Venetis sees an opportunity for improvement. "To the extent we can follow the legislative mandate for regular voting, that’s what we should do," she says. But she also thinks states need to have more flexible procedures for voting available to deal with natural disasters and other emergencies that keep people from going to the polls: "I think this is a wake-up call that we really do need to have emergency voting provisions in place much more than we do."

Jesse Hicks contributed to this report.

The Verge
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