Alaska: An Online Voting Laboratory
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1932 that a “single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
Brandeis’ “laboratory of democracy” concept is very relevant to Alaska’s successful online ballot delivery and return voting system. Alaska is the only state that will allow its registered voters to receive and cast their ballots electronically for the Nov. 4 midterm election.
Alaska in 2012 awarded a contract to SOE/Scytl, one of the nation’s leading election management software solution companies, to develop the Clarity eBallot Delivery Voting System. The online platform provides Alaskan voters an alternative to in-person voting and vote by mail.
The first step in using the online voting system involves the voter accessing an online platform—desktop, laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc.—to request a ballot. Once the election official receives the ballot request and verifies the voter’s identity and registration, the voter receives an email containing links and instructions. The voter then marks and submits his or her ballot through the online system, but not before scanning a digital copy of his or her voter certificate and identification sheet along with the voted ballot.
Gail Fenumiai, Alaska’s director of elections, believes Alaska’s geography and highly mobile voting population demands a voting system that allows voters to have the opportunity to cast a ballot in a very accessible manner.
“This (Clarity eBallot Delivery Voting System) benefits voters who do not have access to a fax machine and where mail service may be slow and unreliable, voters who may be traveling and do not have an address (to) which to mail a ballot, voters who may have had an emergency or who are called away from where they reside in the state and did not have sufficient time to request a by-mail ballot, and for military and civilian overseas voters who may not have reliable mail service or access to a fax machine,” she said.
Election Day expenses involving polling place training, poll worker staffing and hardware equipment purchase/maintenance often prove to be quite costly. From a cost perspective, Alaska’s online voting system has not yet provided a big advantage for Alaskan state and local election administrators.
“Currently, the cost to mail an absentee ballot is $1.19; however, the costs to operate the (Clarity eBallot Delivery Voting System) and staff time to process the returned ballots may not make a big difference in cost,” Fenumiai said. “Again, Alaska’s goal with the system was to provide another method for our voters to ensure, inasmuch as possible, that all voters have the opportunity to cast a ballot.”
In the 2012 presidential election, Alaska issued 7,383 ballots to voters electronically and 5,239 were returned electronically using the online voting system. In the 2014 primary, Alaska issued 1,874 ballots and 1,165 were returned using the same system. The remaining Alaskan voters in both elections either voted by-mail, voted early or voted in person at their polling place on election day.
The security and accuracy of online voting systems remains a concern in the states. Merle King, an associate professor of information systems and executive director for the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, believes every voting system includes some measure of risk.
“There is no guarantee that any deployed system will function perfectly,” he said. “We have seen high-performing systems developed by small innovators, new to the elections marketspace, and we have also seen certified systems, produced by large, established firms fail. Each system has to be evaluated on its own merits—especially one that is breaking new ground. Established firms usually have customer support capabilities that can improve the deployment of the system. But new firms can bring innovative approaches to design and delivery of products.
“The responsibility of a state or local jurisdiction regarding voting systems is to ensure that it captures voter intent and tabulates results, accurately, securely, and with full accessibility, according to federal and state statutes,” he said. “One way that jurisdictions attempt to achieve these goals is by using U.S. Election Assistance Commission-certified systems.”
After managing two statewide elections using the SOE Clarity eBallot Delivery, Fenumiai remains confident in the system.
“No issues have been reported using the system,” she said.
All completed ballots are tabulated using an Election Assistance Commission-certified system, she said. The state’s security office also has reviewed the security standards used by the vendor in testing the system.