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San Jose Mercury News

U.S. soldiers' overseas votes ripe for fraud

Sep. 28, 2006
By Elise Ackerman
Mercury News

Just weeks before the November election, the Pentagon is struggling to fix its system for handling the votes of soldiers overseas.

Yet experts in computer security and election technology say the Pentagon's current attempt to keep those ballots from being rejected in large numbers, as they have been in past elections, has created a system that is ripe for fraud.

During the next six weeks, thousands of service members are expected to fax or e-mail ballots over international communications networks that are susceptible to interception and tampering, putting those votes at risk.

``I can't for the life of me figure out how the Defense Department decided this is the right thing to do,'' said Doug Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa.

Critics of the Pentagon's system identified what they described as other troubling flaws:

• Soldiers are not warned about risks to their personal information and voting choices when they e-mail or fax their ballots;

• Soldiers who fax or e-mail ballots will be required to waive their right to a secret ballot;

• Soldiers are not informed that ballots they e-mail directly to the Department of Defense will be processed by an outside contractor, whose executives have made contributions to Republican organizations.

Last month, an internal Defense Department review of its ballot system ``found significant concerns surrounding the e-mailing of voting materials.'' The review stated: ``E-mail traffic can flow through equipment owned and operated by various governments, companies and individuals in many different countries. It is easily monitored, blocked and subject to tampering.''

Security experts say similar concerns apply to faxes ...

David Wagner, an associate professor of computer science at the University of California-Berkeley, said the system of fax and e-mail was ``far worse'' from a security perspective than the Pentagon's ... online voting system ... canceled in 2004 because it could not prevent electronic ballots from being altered or erased.

Meanwhile, a last-minute attempt to establish a secure electronic channel between local voting officials and military personnel abroad has met bureaucratic resistance. A new site, https://ivas.dod.mil, which makes it ... did not go online until early September. The Web site uses technology provided by PostX of Cupertino.

Few election officials are aware the site exists, and only a small number of counties are ready to use this service.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program, a unit of the Defense Department responsible for helping overseas voters ... does not link to the new site.

``If I didn't know better I would say that their intention is to fail,'' said Bob Carey, a senior fellow at the National Defense Committee, a military advocacy group.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the issue today.

The U.S. military has struggled to find a way to handle ballots to soldiers since they were given the right to vote after World War II. Until recently, it has relied primarily on the U.S. Postal Service and the Military Postal Service Agency ...

The process can be time-consuming. According to the Defense Department, it takes an average of 45 days for a soldier to request, receive and return a ballot. And because soldiers move around so much, their ballots sometimes get lost.

According to a survey of local election offices by the National Defense Committee only three out of every four service people who requested a ballot in the 2004 election got their votes counted.

The Defense Department began providing soldiers with fax machines in 1990 ... E-mail access was added in 2003.

Scott Wiedmann, deputy director of the department's voting program, said 26 states accept completed ballots by fax and eight states accept ballots sent by either fax or e-mail. ...

In 2004, California voters serving in the military or living overseas cast 4,829 votes by fax, out of a total of 44,686 overseas votes, according to the California secretary of state.


Soldiers with access to e-mail can have their electronic ballots converted into faxes by sending them directly to the Pentagon, which in turn forwards them to local counties. But this raises secret-ballot concerns.

Local election officials say they take pains to keep faxed and e-mailed ballots private. But the votes sent to the Pentagon will be forwarded to a private contractor whose top executives have made political contributions to Republican Party organizations. Ecompex, based in McLean, Va., did not respond to a reporter's request to talk about its procedures for ensuring the privacy of the ballots.

Hubin Jiang, president and chief executive, contributed $2,500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2004, and Michael Thomas, the director of contract acquisition, contributed $300 to the Republican National Committee in 2005.