ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Civic-minded soldiers stationed across the world could one day obtain absentee ballots from their laptops or mobile phones as part of a new federal research effort to increase participation among overseas troops and other voters who are out of the country during elections.
A team of Missouri researchers trained in technology, cyber-security and elections management will use a $740,000 Department of Defense grant to explore Internet-based and mobile phone voting applications.
The project initially will focus on speeding the delivery of overseas ballots, Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren said at a Thursday press conference announcing the collaboration. Noren emphasized that voters won't actually cast ballots online, but researchers will study ways to surmount the security obstacles to online voting.
"The time it takes to deliver ballots and have ballots returned is unacceptable," she said. "This has been a long, ongoing problem by military and overseas voters."
More than 350,000 ballots nationwide from overseas voters in the 2008 presidential election were rejected due to delivery, return, registration or counting errors, Noren said. Nearly 300,000 of those unaccepted ballots involved late submission or other return failures.
The larger number of rejected ballots represents more than 30 percent of all absentee ballots cast in the 2008 election.
Noren and her collaborators hope that Congress' passage of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act in 2009 will allow voting systems to catch up with 21st Century technology
"It has been a particularly frustrating situation for members of the military and overseas citizens who know there is a path out there to get access to their ballots that was not available," Noren said.
The project will expand upon a Boone County pilot effort in 2010 in which more than 90 percent of the county's eligible overseas absentee had electronic access to their ballot six weeks before the election.
The collaboration includes the Missouri secretary of state, Noren's office and the University of Missouri. Researchers will be enlisted from the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the Truman School of Public Affairs and the College of Engineering's computer science and information technology department.
The Department of Defense and election offices have explored online voting for troops for more than a decade, with mixed results.
In 2000.,Arizona experimented with online voting in its Democratic Party presidential primary, followed by Michigan four years later. Several counties in West Virginia adopted online voting for overseas troops in 2010.
But later in 2010, the District of Columbia scrapped its plans for Internet-based voting after a group of University of Michigan computer scientists hacked the website to have it play the school's fight song.
Noren called the university's involvement critical to both improving the technology as well as increasing public confidence. The university has agreed to provide local election officials in Missouri with free access to its research applications through 2018. The researchers plan to use open-source, public domain software for added transparency.
"We need to advance the body of knowledge in this area," she said. "We cannot rely on vendors who are trying to meet the need who don't have research and development (experience)."
Bill Harrison, director of the university's Center for High Assurance Computing, offered a similar assessment of the research team's role.
"We take a long view of the development of technology," he said. "So we can ask questions and perform research that really can't be done outside of academia. You can't rely on a vendor who has to produce a certain amount of profit every six months. You cant expect someone in that situation to consider fundamental problems in building secure systems."
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier