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Published on August 24th, 2012 | by Len Lazarick

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Online ballot marking for absentee voters approved, but potential for fraud questioned

Absentee ballot wizard presentation at board of elections meeting.

Absentee ballot wizard presentation at board of elections meeting.

By Glynis Kazanjian
Glynis@MarylandReporter.com

Thousands of absentee voters from Maryland will be the first to mark their ballots online this fall, as the attorney general gave the green light to the State Board of Elections Thursday. But at least one advocacy organization said the new online ballot marking program, along with the state’s just started online registration process, is open to voter fraud.

The long-awaited formal opinion from the attorney general  gave the elections board the official OK to implement online ballot marking software without having to undergo state or federal certification, which a watchdog group opposed. The five-member board voted unanimously during their monthly meeting to proceed with the new online tool.

The ballot marking “wizard” will allow military and overseas voters, also referred to as Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) voters, to mark their absentee ballots online, a step designed to make the final processing of their ballots more efficient, the state board said.

Advocate points out security problem

After the approval, a voting rights advocate told the board about a possible security vulnerability, one she said that would not only affect the state’s new online voter registration system but could potentially extend to the November elections.

Rebecca Wilson of SAVEourVotes.org told election officials about a website that easily displays a person’s state issued driver’s license number, which is one of the four information components required to register online. By inputting the person’s first, middle and last names, and the month and day the person was born, the site displays the person’s Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) issued identification number.

“The only thing the corrupter needs to know is the full name and the date of birth, but the month and day only,” and not the year, Wilson said.

Many people post their birth dates on Facebook.

State board of elections

State Board of Elections Chairman Robert Walker, and state board members David McManus, Jr. and Rachel McGuckian check their cell phones during a presentation of online security vulnerabilities for a website that uploads Maryland drivers license numbers, as elections administrator Linda Lamone and deputy administrator Ross Goldstein look on.

The election board’s chairman, Robert Walker, sat with fellow board members during the presentation frantically searching the Internet on their cell phones for the company Wilson referred to, but did not mention by name. Within minutes Walker pulled up the site, www.highprogrammer.com, and confirmed what Wilson alleged.

“It does come back accurately,” Walker said.

Fears about voter fraud

In comments prior to the meeting, Wilson said her biggest concern was the effect the new online policies would have on the results of the general election this fall.

“It is much easier to commit voter fraud with an online absentee ballot system than with a physical one because you don’t need to be physically present to intercept the ballot,” Wilson said. “What they don’t understand is that they’re not just putting at risk the [absentee] votes that are cast this way, they’re putting the entire election at risk.”

“It seems to me it would leave open the door for anybody, any candidate, or backers of the various referendums that are going to be put on the ballot, to challenge the results of the election,” she said.

After her allotted five minutes of testimony, the board thanked Wilson and said it would take her findings into consideration.

Domestic voters can’t request absentee ballots online

The board also approved the new absentee ballot, which no longer includes the option for domestic absentee voters to request ballots electronically.

In 2010, the federal MOVE Act mandated states provide active military personnel and overseas voters with an electronically downloadable online ballot. But a May 29 Maryland Reporter story  found the state board had gone beyond the scope of the mandate and allowed all domestic voters to receive ballots online, although it was unclear whether the board actually voted on that issue.

In a confidential memo yesterday, Assistant Attorney General Jeff Darsie told the state board that it probably lacks the authority to issue absentee ballots to domestic absentee voters electronically, as it permitted in the 2010 election.

“In my opinion, the State Board has very likely not been delegated authority by the General Assembly to transmit ballots electronically to non-UOCAVA voters,” voters not overseas or in the military, Darsie wrote.

AG opinion answered certification question

The main question the formal attorney general’s opinion resolved was whether the ballot wizard was considered a whole voting system — which had to be certified — or a part of a voting system, which did not need certification.

The AG supported the board’s premise that the wizard was only a part of the voting system. Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, had requested the opinion last spring after legislation was introduced to waive certification requirements. The legislation did not pass.

The formal opinion signed by Attorney General Doug Gansler reads: “It is our opinion that the State Board may implement the ballot-marking wizard for military and overseas civilian voters without obtaining certification under section 9-102. . . The proposed technology – commonly referred to as a ballot-marking ‘wizard’ – allows voters to mark selections electronically on a downloadable ballot before it is printed, but it does not include a capability either to ‘cast’ or ‘tabulate’ votes. The ballot wizard, therefore, does not itself meet the definition of ‘voting system.’”

According to the state board, 8,000 people have either registered or changed their voter registration online since online voter registration began last month. There are now 13 states, including Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Washington and certain counties in California that allow voters to register online.

Voters wishing to register online must provide their first and last names, date of birth, zip code and their state issued driver’s license or personal identification number. Military and overseas absentee voters who wish to mark their ballots online, must provide their first and last name, date of birth and zip code, and must already be registered with the state.

Sept. 22 is the deadline for the board of elections to mail out or post online absentee ballots. The voter registration deadline is Tuesday, Oct. 16 at 9 p.m.

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