A Pentagon official sat before a committee of the Washington State Legislature in January and declared that the U.S. military supported a bill that would allow voters in the state to cast election ballots via email or fax without having to certify their identities. Military liaison Mark San Souci’s brief testimony was stunning because it directly contradicted the Pentagon’s previously stated position on online voting: It’s against it. Along with Congress, the Defense Department has heeded warnings over the past decade from cybersecurity experts that no Internet voting system can effectively block hackers from tampering with election results. And email and fax transmissions are the most vulnerable of all, according to experts, including officials at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is part of the Commerce Department. San Souci declined to comment. A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, said the Defense Department “does not advocate for the electronic transmission of any voted ballot, whether it be by fax, email or via the Internet.”
The Washington state legislation is dead for this year. But the episode provides a window into how the voting industry, with an occasional boost from the Pentagon, is succeeding in selling state and local officials on the new technology, despite predictions of likely security breaches. It’s also put state lawmakers and election officials at odds with their counterparts in the other Washington: the nation’s capital.
Congress has demurred from funding online-voting systems until the National Institute of Standards and Technology sets a security standard, a prospect that seems unlikely in the near term amid the prominent hackings of Sony Corp., Target Corp. and the CIA’s Twitter account
States have wide leeway over what voting systems they use, and Washington is among 29 states that have embraced some form of Internet voting, at least for service members and other Americans living abroad who have a harder time getting ballots.
The Washington State Legislature in 2011 made it possible for all counties to allow voters to submit ballots by fax or as email attachments as long as they also submitted hard copies with sworn signatures attesting to their identities. Similar legislation was introduced this year in Utah and Hawaii. But the Washington state bill discussed in January would strip out the hard copy requirement. Voters could simply download ballots and email their choices.