Wash. considers online voting for overseas voters

By Rachel La Corte
Published January 31st 2009 in Seattle Post-Intelligencer
OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Last year, Washington state residents were able to start registering to vote online. Soon, military and overseas voters may be able to cast their votes the same way.

"This is just the next logical step," Secretary of State Sam Reed says of his proposal to make it easier for Washingtonians abroad to vote. "I would like to get to the point where we're able to have them apply to vote online, we would issue them a pin number and they would be able to vote from anywhere in the world."

If approved by the Legislature, Reed's proposal doesn't lay out a timetable, and requires that the secretary of state's office ensure the security and secrecy of the ballots.

Because of the challenging economic climate, Reed isn't asking for any money for a new system. Instead, he plans to seek private grants for a pilot program.

"I would like to have something operating in 2010, even if it's just in one county," he said. "We realize that we have to wait until we actually have a budget to do it. We can't do it in a sloppy way. We need to do it right."

The first public hearing on the measure is on Friday Feb. 6 before the House State Government & Tribal Affairs Committee.

Reed said he'd like a program where voters could vote on a Web site from their own laptops, which would be a first for the country. Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman is pushing for the same type of measure when the Alabama Legislature convenes Feb. 3.

Currently, Arizona allows overseas voters to electronically upload their absentee ballots. Missouri accepts electronically submitted ballots if submitted by armed forces in designated combat or hostile zones. A pilot program in Florida for the November election allowed registered Okaloosa County voters stationed near three U.S. bases overseas to cast their ballots online at kiosks set up in Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.

"I won't be surprised if other states look at similar solutions," said Tim Storey, elections analyst for the National Conference of State Legislators.

In 2004, the Pentagon canceled Internet voting that would have involved as many as 100,000 military and overseas citizens from seven states, including Washington, over security concerns.

A bill authorizing Thurston, Pierce, Kitsap, Spokane, Snohomish, Island, and Cowlitz counties to participate in that pilot program was overwhelmingly passed by the state House and Senate in 2003, and Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, thinks there will be similar support this time around.

"You can be overseas and draw out money. If we can do that with privacy and security, we can allow this for our military." said Roach, who sponsored the 2003 bill.

About 67,000 overseas ballots were sent out for the general election. Reed said that his office doesn't have statewide numbers on how many ballots have been rejected for being returned after the deadline, but he said online options would minimize the chance that overseas votes would be delayed in the mail so long that they wouldn't be counted.

Megan Coppersmith, spokeswoman for King County Elections, said that of the nearly 22,000 ballots they sent out to overseas military and nonmilitary voters for the November election, less than 100 reached the county offices after the election was certified three weeks later.

Because of the varying time it can take for absentee ballots from far-flung places to reach elections officials, overseas voters in Washington state only have to have their ballots in before the election is certified. Their ballots count as long as the envelope is signed by Election Day.

Of the 15,000 ballots that were returned on time, 13 of them couldn't be counted because the voter dated the ballot after Election Day, Coppersmith said.

Kitsap County auditor Walter Washington said that at a recent meeting of the state's elections officials, all 39 county auditors voted in support of Reed's proposal.

"You have the right to vote," Washington said. "That's very precious to Americans. When that's denied by your absence, or because you're somewhere you can't get a ballot, that's just not right."

Sen. Steve Hobbs, a member of the Army National Guard Reserve who has served in Iraq and Kosovo, is sponsoring the measure in the Senate. He said many things can disrupt military mail, and that military voters shouldn't have to wonder whether their ballot made it in on time.

"This is a way to assure men and women who serve that their vote will count," said Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

Storey, the NCSL elections analyst, said that a number of states have contacted him about pursuing similar measures. But he said cyber security is still a main stumbling block for many.

"There hasn't been that confidence among policy makers that the Internet is 100 percent secure," he said. "They need that confidence before they make that leap."

Washington became the second state, behind Arizona, to allow online voter registration when the governor signed the measure into law in 2007. More than 159,000 voters have registered online since the law took effect last January.

Voters now can fill out an application on the secretary of state's Web site and the applications are sent daily in electronic form to county elections offices.


The online voting bills are House Bill 1624 and Senate Bill 5522.


On the Web:

Washington state Legislature: http://www.leg.wa.gov

Washington state Secretary of State: http://www.secstate.wa.gov/

National Conference of State Legislatures: http://www.ncsl.org/