N.J.'s email voting plan runs into problems, sparks security concerns

Some voters in Essex and Morris counties reportedly find it hard to vote via email

The move to allow voters in New Jersey to cast their votes via email or fax may be running into early problems, according to reports.

BuzzFeed this morning reported that voters in New Jersey's Morris and Essex Counties were being stymied in their efforts to cast their votes electronically because of unresponsive email systems. Voting by email and fax is being allowed to help voters displaced from their homes by Hurricane Sandy.

According to BuzzFeed, the email addresses listed on the county clerk's website for both Essex and Morris counties were not receiving email, preventing some voters who tried to submit ballots via email from doing so.

Perhaps as a result of the problems, Essex County Clerk Christopher Durkin invited voters to email requests for ballots to his personal email address cj_durkin@hotmail.com, BuzzFeed reported. It quoted one voter as saying he had emailed a request for a ballot to the Essex County clerk three times only to find the request bouncing back each time.

"I can't even get in touch w/Essex County Clerk to do email voting," someone using the name "@CandelaSpirit" tweeted today. "Constant busy signal. Even EMAIL box is full."

It was not possible to immediately verify how many people may be having problems at Essex and Morris counties. There was no immediate response to a request for information from the clerks in both counties.

The reported problems only add to concerns sparked by the decision to allow email and fax voting in New Jersey. The move announced Sunday by New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno is designed to alleviate pressure at polling places in the wake of the hurricane.

Under the directive, eligible New Jersey voters can submit a mail-in ballot application either by email or fax to their county clerk. The clerk is then supposed to send a ballot electronically to the voter, who will then fill it out and submit it as an email attachment or via fax.

This kind of mail-in absentee voting has hitherto been available in New Jersey only for overseas residents and military personnel in active duty. Under last week's directive, displaced residents in New Jersey can be designated as "overseas voters" for the purposes of voting in today's elections.

The decision to extend electronic voting to a broader section of the state's population has alarmed many security experts who say that email voting is inherently insecure.

"Email voting is the most insecure form of Internet voting, Andrew Appel, a professor of computer science at Princeton University, said at a news conference Monday to discuss the issue. Considering how trivial it is for attackers to fake email addresses or to intercept email, such voting presents a "really juicy target for hackers looking to subvert an election," he said.

Importantly, New Jersey statutes require that voters who submit a ballot via email or fax also mail in the original physical voted ballot together with a certificate to election officials in their jurisdictions, Appel noted in a subsequent blog post. However, that provision appears to have been ignored in Guadagno's directive, so displaced voters who cast their ballots electronically without also then mailing in their paper ballot could find their votes being rejected as invalid.

Doug Kellner, co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, said that even though certain parts of New York were hit just as badly as New Jersey, the state did not allow e-voting because of security issues. "There is a consensus among senior election officials that procedures that allow delivery of ballots by email or the Internet are completely insecure," Kellner sad during the news conference. "They are hackable and completely not verifiable."

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, downplayed such concerns. "This is a process that's been in place in New Jersey since 2008 for overseas and military voters, without incident or concerns from these groups," he said via email. "We're opening this process up to displaced residents because of the extreme circumstances still prevalent in the aftermath of the storm, ensuring that every duly registered voter has the opportunity to exercise their right."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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