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While debate continues in the states on the pros and cons of paper ballots versus machines, American troops could lead the way whenever voting moves online.

Not every American would be able to vote via the Internet, proponents say, but it is an option for overseas Americans.

"If that issue gets figured out, more likely than not overseas and military voters will be the place it gets figured out first," said Doug Chapin, director of electiononline.org, an election reform news site. "It certainly isn’t going to happen for this fall’s election."

Many countries already allow their deployed troops and overseas citizens to vote via Internet.

In fact, the American military almost voted online in 2004. The Defense Department’s $25 million SERVE initiative would have allowed DOD cardholders to cast a ballot via a secure server. But months before the launch, some computer experts went public with security concerns, and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz scrapped the plan.

The SERVE program was pretty pedestrian compared to some European countries where Internet voting is already a given for those who can’t vote in person, according to Thad Hall, a professor at the University of Utah who studies election reform and the Internet.

Folks in the military already have the secure infrastructure, including the Common Access Card system, that could facilitate Internet voting, Hall said.

"It’s kind of the next logical step in trying to enfranchise the people who are in the military and overseas," he said. "There’s clearly the highest need for those people to cast ballots."

Many people already bank and file tax returns online, Hall said.

"I don’t see why a process for voting over the Internet would be so problematic," he said. "It hasn’t been a problem for military people in Australia."

But Internet voting lacks the transparency and the paper trail required for a fair election, according to Rop Gonggrijp, a hacker and founder of XS4ALL, an Internet service provider in The Netherlands.

"You need to be independent from software" when it comes to elections, he said. "As long as you depend on the software you depend on the few people who know it.

"And, standing outside the box, you cannot see what’s happening. That box can pretend to be innocuous while it’s actually doing evil things."

Since 2004, the DOD’s Federal Voting Assistance Program is holding off on any other Internet voting programs until the federal Election Assistance Commission releases best practices, something that won’t happen until at least 2010.

"When I go around the country, everybody agrees that we will have online or Internet voting someday," Chapin said. "The fistfight starts when you start determining what ‘someday’ is."


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