Updated to include North Carolina as a state offering online ballot return for all UOCAVA voters

As the U.S. grapples with concerns about mail delivery during the pandemic, thousands of military and overseas citizens voting by absentee ballot in South Carolina will for the first time be able to cast their ballot through an online portal — from mobile phones, laptops, iPads or other devices.

Within a week, South Carolina election officials will update their website to include a link to the online portal for voters protected under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the South Carolina State Election Commission. These voters are commonly referred to as UOCAVA voters.

In 2016, 8,621 UOCAVA voters in South Carolina requested absentee ballots, including 4,615 military voters and 4,006 U.S. citizens overseas, Whitmire said.

Five other states offer online ballot return for all UOCAVA voters: Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, North Dakota and West Virginia.

For military absentee voters, 25 states allow email return of the voted ballot. There’s still time to register to vote wherever your jurisdiction is located. For complete information about states' deadlines and requirements for voter registration; requesting the absentee ballot, and returning the voted absentee ballot, UOCAVA voters can visit the Federal Voting Assistance Program website, administered by DoD, www.fvap.gov or the nonpartisan Overseas Vote Foundation website. Both provide voters tools and resources to help them vote successfully from anywhere in the world.

UOCAVA applies to all military members and their dependents in the continental U.S. as well as overseas who are absent from their place of residence for voting; and to U.S. citizens who are living overseas.

The online portal makes it easier for UOCAVA voters to vote, said South Carolina’s Whitmire, eliminating the requirement to print out the ballot before marking it then scanning it to attach to an email.

“This is more secure and more user friendly than emailing your ballot,” he said. This isn’t a mobile app, but it can be accessed through mobile phones and other devices.

Security tested

The online portal was tested for UOCAVA voters in a small special election Aug. 11 in Charleston County. There was a positive response from voters, said Isaac Cramer, project manager for the Charleston County Board of Elections. He manages the process for all absentee voting. There were 47 UOCAVA voters in that small special election, he said. “This is so much easier for me,” wrote one military voter to county election officials.

Typically in the past, the South Carolina UOCAVA voter emailed the ballot along with a cover sheet with the voter’s Social Security number and voter registration number. Voters complained about having to include their Social Security numbers and other personal information, he said.

Through this new online portal, South Carolina UOCAVA voters provide their name, date of birth, and a PIN number given to them by the election official, to access the ballot. The voted ballot goes to a secure portal that’s not connected to the Internet, and election officials print it out from there on ballot paper, and it’s tabulated with other ballots, Cramer said.

To help UOCAVA voters overseas affected by the pandemic and issues with international mail, he said, “the solution for us is to use this platform.” South Carolina’s web-based system is called OmniBallot, and was developed by the company Democracy Live. Democracy Live, the South Carolina State Election Commission, Tusk Philanthropies and the National Cybersecurity Center collaborated on the South Carolina effort.

The online portal is much more secure than current options of emailing or faxing voted ballots, said Sheila Nix, president of Tusk Philanthropies, which has funded pilots to further the use of online voting.

Standing down on objections

The nonpartisan U.S. Vote Foundation and its Overseas Vote initiative, a watchdog group that also develops and provides online tools to help U.S. citizens register to vote and request their absentee ballot, has had to “stand down” in its long-time position against online voting, said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president and CEO of the foundation. "We’ve always stood for integrity of the ballot, and always drew the line that online shouldn’t cross the line of ballot return. We’ve always advocated for it to be on paper.

“This year, we’re between a rock and hard place,” she said. “Unfortunately we’ve had to stand down on the issue of online security of the ballot. We have to acknowledge the reality” that mail delivery has dramatically slowed, and voters are anxious to get their ballots back to their election officials. “If a state offers another method, we’re not going to say don’t use it,” she said.

“It’s a crap shoot. Do you trust the [mail service] or worry about the Russians hacking your ballot? How can I be the arbiter of that decision?”

While postal operations have continued to move mail for military and family members overseas who have access to a military post office, there have been many problems for other American citizens overseas who don’t have access to the military post offices. It’s now taking a month or more in many cases for mail to get back to the U.S., Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.

Many overseas U.S. citizens feel they must pay $100 or more for a courier service to ensure their ballot gets back in time to be counted, she said.

Military advantage

“Fortunately the military has the express mail service for free,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. “I hope they vote.”

All military voters and their family members overseas also have access to the free expedited mail service from overseas, and tracking of their absentee ballot, if they choose to mail the ballot or if their state requires it to be mailed. Each voted ballot dropped off at a military post office overseas will receive the Label 11-DoD, automatically giving that ballot expedited delivery.

Critics have long been concerned about the security of online voting, including this system. “I don’t know any serious computer security person — except those whose mortgages are being paid by online voting companies — that support online voting or mobile voting,” said Duncan Buell, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of South Carolina who specializes in election technology.

Tusk’s Nix said critics assume the current systems are perfect and secure, noting that a number of states allow return of ballots by email or fax, which, she contends, is less secure than the OmniBallot portal.

“It’s a huge improvement in security, privacy and convenience,” she said. Like the critics of online voting, she said, “we’re greatly interested in having safe and secure elections.”

Critics: limit technology

But Buell and others contend that any electronic transmission of ballots should be taken out of the ballot return process.

“For elections, I believe we should get rid of as much technology as possible, simply because elections are really hard to get right. There are about 3,000 jurisdictions in the country, with a lot of ballot styles. Keep systems as simple as possible. You don’t know where things are going to go wrong. The problem with elections is you have no idea really what ground truth is. You really don’t know that the answer is until you count the votes. There’s no way to test [the technology] at scale.”

For example, with the OmniBallot system, the ballot that’s printed out is what is stored in the system, but it may not be what the voter filled out, he said. “People who use that method have no idea whether it’s counted correctly.”

In an analysis of OmniBallot published June 7, researchers concluded that online ballot return "represents a severe danger to election integrity and voter privacy.

“At worst, attackers could change election outcomes without detection, and even if there was no attack, officials would have no way to prove that the results were accurate,” concluded the report by J. Alex Halderman, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, and Michael A. Specter, a doctoral student at MIT.

“No available technology can adequately mitigate these risks, so we urge jurisdictions not to deploy OmniBallot’s online voting features.”

South Carolina’s goal is to get close to making it as easy for military voters to vote from wherever they are as it would be if they were home, Whitmire said. “That may be an unattainable goal, but it’s a worthy goal. As we work toward that goal, we have to keep security in mind. We believe this is a more secure way to provide for that electronic transmission.”

The general election is less than two months away, but it’s not too late to register to vote, and to request your absentee ballot, whatever state and wherever your voting jurisdiction is.

UOCAVA voters should be watching out for their absentee ballot, if they requested it already. Sept. 19 marks the deadline, for local election officials to send out absentee ballots to UOCAVA voters; depending on the jurisdiction, some counties have sent the ballots out already. By law, local election officials must send the absentee ballot to UOCAVA voters at least 45 days before the election.

UOCAVA voters should use the Federal Post Card Application, or FPCA, to register to vote and request their absentee ballot. You can download that FPCA from the Federal Voting Assistance Program website, administered by DoD.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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