New Jersey's ill-considered decision to permit email voting

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In the face of turmoil caused by Hurricane Sandy, a decision by the New Jersey state government to permit those who have been displaced by the storm to submit their votes by email in the Nov. 6 election is a well-intentioned one.

Unfortunately, it has the potential to sow further chaos. Even should the worst-case scenarios of malicious code altering ballots or denial of service attacks overwhelming county computers not come to pass (although how would we necessarily know in the first case?), this last minute change to elections administration permits a degree of unnecessary uncertainty to creep into New Jersey election results.

As security researcher Matt Blaze notes, that uncertainty will unlikely affect New Jersey's electoral college vote in the presidential election, which most agree is solidly Democratic. Contested local races, however, could easily get caught up in doubts about vote integrity caused by the inherent security issues of email and other problems caused by the rushed nature of implementing this unprecedented modification to the voting system.

"Each county has less than two days to figure out how to design and deploy a full-scale voting system that the loser of each race will have considerably more than two days to figure out how to challenge," Blaze notes.

Voter displacement is a threat to the integrity of the voting system too--no one is arguing that the state of New Jersey should proceed as if Hurricane Sandy hasn't created a challenge to the right of American citizens to cast a ballot.

But the state government already has begun to address other directives that don't cause wholesale doubt to be injected into the voting system.

For example, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) in her capacity as chief election official has told (.pdf) local officials that displaced voters can file provisional ballots "at any polling place," that the provisional ballots will be delivered to the county clerk of the voter's residence, and that "all eligible votes must be counted." Guadagno also lifted (.pdf) the state limitation on authorized messengers being able to carry no more than 10 ballots at a time in another directive while also directing county clerks to identify alternative polling places.

Guadagno also extended the deadline for the receipt of mail-in ballots postmarked on or before Nov. 5 to Nov. 19. These decisions don't address all the problems associated with displacement--for example, transportation to polling places for those immobilized by the storm--but they show that proactive measures are possible that don't involve undermining the integrity and privacy of voting. Additional activity in that vein--perhaps working proactively with shelters on getting out the vote--is what's necessary, not a half-baked last minute decision that will undermine the very thing it means to help. - Dave