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Giving overseas voters a direct connection

Using the Web, Okaloosa County, Fla., will plug in absentee voters at three air bases

RAF MILDENHALL, England — A bit of the Sunshine State will be coming overseas next year to help simplify absentee voting.

Some registered Florida voters will be able to forgo the difficulty of voting overseas with the introduction of voting kiosks at three Air Force bases in Europe and Asia.

Voters registered in Okaloosa County, Fla., will be able to use the kiosks to vote via a secure Internet connection. The kiosks will be largely aesthetic, mimicking that back-home experience.

The kiosks will be set up around Mildenhall; Ramstein Air Base, Germany; and Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, according to Pat Hollarn, head of Okaloosa elections, a former Air Force wife and head of the Operation BRAVO Foundation. BRAVO stands for Bring Remote Access Voting Overseas.

The nonprofit foundation is dedicated to helping the 6 million overseas Americans get past the difficulties of voting outside the States.

Okaloosa is an ideal county to head such an experiment because it is home to Eglin Air Force Base and a variety of other installations, said Hollarn, 73.

Between 700 and 900 Okaloosa-registered voters are in the Mildenhall, Ramstein and Kadena communities, she said.

Dubbed a “scientific experiment” by Hollarn, the Okaloosa Distance Balloting Pilot will seek to show that remote voting is possible via secure Internet connections. The company in charge of the technology, Scytl Secure Electronic Voting, already oversees Internet voting technologies for other countries, including Switzerland, Finland, England, France and Spain, Hollarn said.

“I liken it to the people who used to believe the Earth was flat,” she said of Internet-voting skeptics. “We have secure electronic means now in existence. We’re banking all over the world. We have the military classified-type of communication. This is proven technology.”

Scytl conducted voting for British troops in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone via personal digital assistants such as BlackBerrys, she said.

“That’s the future,” she said.

The kiosks going to the three U.S. Air Force bases next year will be in place from Oct. 20 through Election Day. Voters from Okaloosa County will be able to use the kiosks throughout those dates.

A kiosk will be placed on Kadena base because the commander is an old friend, Hollarn said, but the Ramstein and Mildenhall kiosks likely will be placed somewhere outside the fence.

“We’re going to locate a very accessible and secure place, like in a hotel or an office building,” she said. “We don’t need to bother the commanders about this.”

The project is expected to cost about $700,000 and largely is funded through private donations, according to project manager Carol Paquette.

Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president of the Overseas Vote Foundation, a nonprofit overseas-voter advocacy group, said it’s heartening to see others taking the initiative to fix the complicated absentee-voting system, one the Defense Department has not satisfactorily fixed.

The DOD is responsible for all American overseas voters.

“It’s quite interesting to see there’s another group that is saying ‘We’re not going to wait around anymore for somebody to solve the obvious problems,’ ” she said. “It could set a very important technical precedent for a safe model upon which we can build.”

The Defense Department has worked to improve the absentee-voting system in past years, but such efforts have come under fire from various sectors.

“They are the overlooked Americans, and they deserve to have this right in this day and age with the technology that is available,” Hollarn said. “One of the reasons that spurred me to do this is the millions and millions the DOD has spent with the Federal Voting Assistance Program. It hasn’t accomplished a dang thing. We can do it for a whole lot less money with a whole lot better results.”

Voters registered in Okaloosa County, Fla., and based around RAF Mildenhall, England; Ramstein Air Base, Germany; and Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, will be notified early next year about the pilot program. Those wanting information sooner about voter registration can log on to www.govote-okaloosa.com


Info you need, a click away

The Overseas Vote Foundation, a nonprofit overseas-voter advocacy group, introduced a Web site last month that gives voters a one-stop shop for all their absentee-voting needs.

The new page, www.overseasvotefoundation.org, features simple, pull-down menus for each state, and guides voters through anything from registering to vote to requesting an absentee ballot, said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, the foundation’s president.

Nothing is hidden on the new page, she said. Menus point and drop with a click of the mouse.

“We’ve been able to look at the reasons why voters come to OVF,” she said. “That’s what we kept in mind when we designed this site.”

Voters can find everything they need to know about deadlines, contact information, ballot transmission and a host of other voting issues.

“In every state and every county, [absentee-voting regulations] are different,” she said. “If you can go and just choose your state, you’re set.”

Alabama, Minnesota and Ohio already have adopted the OVF’s Web site template and will run voter assistance applications that originated on the foundation’s Web site, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.

In an unscientific test, it took a Stripes reporter less than five minutes to get his relevant absentee ballot set up.

“We’ve designed this 100 percent with the voter in mind,” she said. “Everything’s geared toward keeping the voter on track. We are trying to give it to them faster and more cleanly than ever.”

— Geoff Ziezulewicz


How it works

Voters stationed around RAF Mildenhall, England; Ramstein Air Base, Germany; and Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, who are registered to vote in Okaloosa County, Fla., will be able to vote via laptops using voting software. Trained Okaloosa poll workers will be on hand at each site.

The laptops will be connected to the statewide voter registration system to confirm a voter’s identity and eligibility, according to Pat Hollarn, head of elections for the county.

Voters then will get a digital signature that they will attach to their vote at a second computer, and the vote will be sent encrypted to a secure server in Okaloosa, she said.

To protect against any manipulation, no votes or other data will be retained at the overseas site, Hollarn said. It all goes back to that secure Okaloosa server.

Paper ballots will be available in case there are any problems with the technology, she said.

Hollarn said no touch-screen machines or other technology that has caused controversy in recent election cycles will be used.
 

By the numbers

Here’s a look at some voter- and ballot-related numbers:

87 percent: the number of servicemembers surveyed in a focus group who said they were likely to vote over the Internet if security was adequate, a Government Accountability Office representative told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2006.

6 million: the number of Americans — military and non-military — living overseas, according to the Overseas Vote Foundation.

24 percent: the amount of overseas military votes not counted in 2004 because ballots arrived too late to be counted or contained errors that invalidated them, according to a 2005 study by the National Defense Committee, a military voter advocacy group.

46 percent: the percentage of voters surveyed who knew about the federal write-in absentee ballot, a last-chance ballot authorized by Congress to ensure all would-be voters have an opportunity to cast their choices, according to the Overseas Vote Foundation.

122,000: the number of absentee ballots sent out in Florida in 2004, according to a report from the federal Election Assistance Commission.

29,000: The number of absentee ballots sent out in Florida in 2004 that were not returned, according to the Election Assistance Commission.

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