Absentee ballots moving online causes security concerns

By Glynis Kazanjian


Maryland voters will be able to obtain and mark absentee ballots online under current plans. Above, a proof of the June 2014 ballot posted on the State Board of Elections website.

Maryland voters may soon have the option to obtain and mark absentee ballots online. Pictured above is a proof of the June 2014 primary ballot posted on the Maryland State Board of Elections website.

Voters may get to skip the lines at the polls this summer by receiving and marking their ballots online, but election officials must first decide if the convenience outweighs the security risks.

The State Board of Elections will vote this month on using a new online ballot marking system, which includes electronic delivery of absentee ballots, in the June 24 gubernatorial primary election.

But voter advocates and security hawks warned in recent months that poor authentication methods — as well as inconsistent online requirements — make the system vulnerable to voter fraud.

Information to validate identity easy to find

For one online ballot request option, requesting an absentee ballot requires only a voter’s name and date of birth. For another, the voter’s driver’s license number, issuance date and last four digits of their social security number is required.

Information for either format can be easily obtained, advocates say. Under Maryland’s “no-excuse” absentee voter policy, any voter can request an absentee ballot without providing a reason for needing one.

Deputy Election Administrator, Nikki Charlson, conceded that current security measures for the front end of the system — where voter fraud is most likely to occur — are imperfect.

“We might not be able to prevent someone who has illegally obtained information [from entering the system],” Charlson said. “But what we can try to do is detect it on the back end, and we have many things in place that can do that.”

Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor who presented his own security assessment findings to the state board in March, has urged the state board to have ballots mailed to the voter’s “brick and mortar” address until more security measures are put in place.

“There is significant potential for fraud, delayed election results and violations of ballot secrecy,” Greenberger said.

Certification requirement unclear

State law requires the state board to certify the online ballot marking system if it is to be used in a future election.

But Charlson, who speaks on behalf of State Election Administrator Linda Lamone, contends that only a portion of the system – the ballot marking tool – requires certification, not the electronic delivery of the ballot.

“The State Board is required to certify the online ballot marking tool,” Charlson stated.  “The State Board is not required to certify the online ballot delivery system.”

At least one board member at the March meeting asked Assistant Attorney General Jeff Darsie, who acts as counsel to the state election board, to weigh in on certification requirements surrounding electronic ballot delivery.

State law describes the online ballot marking tool as one that “includes a system that allows a voter to access a blank ballot through the Internet. . . “

Legislation passed last year required a number of studies to be conducted on the ballot marking system, including one that would study the security of the online ballot delivery system.

Del. Jon Cardin, (D-Baltimore County), chair of the House Ways and Means Election Law subcommittee, said while he thought the law could be argued either way, it was his impression that the intent of the Maryland General Assembly was to have everything in the ballot marking system certified.

“It seems to me they would do it for everything,” said Cardin, who is running for Attorney General in the Democratic primary.

Cardin said he wasn’t sure if the electronic delivery of the ballot was ever tested.

“The report doesn’t specify,” he said.

Electronic testing details kept under wraps

Largo-based Unatek, Inc. conducted an online voter services vulnerability and penetration test for the State Board. Charles Iheagwara, the managing director of Unatek, said the electronic delivery of the ballot had been tested. But when asked to provide details of the testing, Iheagwara declined to comment and cited a confidentiality agreement with the state.

Charlson also said the electronic delivery of ballots had been tested, but emphasized that certain information is discussed in closed sessions of state board meetings and unavailable to the public.

Darsie will offer the board formal guidance at the April 24 state board meeting.

About The Author

Meg Tully


Contributing Editor Meg Tully has been covering Maryland politics for more than five years. She has worked for The Frederick News-Post, where she reported during the General Assembly session in Annapolis. She has also worked for The (Hanover) Evening Sun and interned at Baltimore Magazine. Meg has won awards from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association for her state and county writing, and a Keystone Press Award for feature writing from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. She is a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. If you have additional questions or comments contact Meg at: megctully@gmail.com