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Lawmaker seeks pilot program to test online voting in Arizona

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PHOENIX – The future of voting is online, and moving Arizona’s elections to the Internet would save money, deter voter fraud and increase efficiency, a state lawmaker says.

“We will vote online some day,” said Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa. “So why not start to figure it out and get ahead of the curve and have Arizona lead the way on this?”

Worsley introduced SB 1387 to create an online voting pilot program before the 2014 primary election. It would require at least one county and one city, town or other local jurisdiction to be involved and allow for votes to be cast via the Internet.

The measure was assigned to the Senate Elections Committee but has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

An online voting system would bite into the $12 million the state spends each year on early and mail voting and reduce the time it takes to count votes, Worsley said in an interview.

“Online voting would have practically zero cost once the system is built,” he said.

Worsley said online voting would also make elections more secure by limiting opportunities for voter fraud.

“We have no doubt we can reduce (voter) fraud far lower than what’s occurring today in person,” he said. “Fears of hacking and insecurity of information is vastly overblown … It’s a small fraction of percentage of risk compared to the voter fraud that happens today.”

Election fraud is rare, according to an investigation conducted by News21, a national reporting consortium made up of 11 universities and hosted at Arizona State University. The investigation found 10 cases of alleged in-person voting fraud that reached a courtroom since the year 2000 nationwide, and 491 cases of mail ballot fraud in the same period.

“There’s a lot of allegations of voter fraud,” Worsley said. “Just Google that and read about that in the last presidential election. Was it at such a level that it threw the election? I don’t think so. But it occurs.”

Bruce Schneier, the author of five books on cryptography, computer and network security and overall security, said he likes the idea of online voting but doesn’t think it can be done securely.

“We have not, in the history of mankind, created a computer system without a security vulnerability,” he said.

Worsley, founder of retail catalog giant SkyMall, insists the system he proposes can be reliable.

“My business did over a million transactions a year,” he said. “I know that this can be done securely.”

Worsley compared Internet voting to the millions of online banking or stock transactions that happen every day, but Schneier said there’s a fundamental difference.

“The important difference is that voting, by definition, is anonymous,” he said. “If there’s electronic banking fraud, we look at what happens, we can roll it back and make everybody whole. We can’t do that with a voting system.”

Secretary of State Ken Bennett is “supportive of the idea but has concerns with security and the guarantee of the voter’s right to a secret ballot,” said Matt Roberts, Bennett’s spokesman. “Additionally he is concerned with implementing such a program in such a short period of time.”

Election administrators in Washington, D.C., tried Internet voting for military and overseas voters ahead of the 2010 midterm elections. The administrators launched the program a few days early and invited hackers to test the system. A group of University of Michigan Graduate students led by Professor J. Alex Halderman was able to hack the system within 48 hours, giving them the ability to change votes and gain control of the security cameras monitoring election workers.

Worsley said the District of Columbia’s system was “totally unsophisticated.” Arizona’s system would fare much better, he said.

Halderman said in a phone interview that contractors who built Washington’s system knew what they were doing but made a simple coding mistake that allowed for the hack.

The landscape has only gotten more dangerous since then, he said, with the emergence of increasingly sophisticated state-sponsored cyber attackers regularly hacking the computer systems of government agencies and national newspapers like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

“In light of threats like that becoming something we’re hearing about on a monthly or weekly basis, to even consider moving something as critical as voting online is ridiculous,” Halderman said.

Tammy Patrick, the Maricopa County Elections Department’s federal compliance officer, said the county isn’t taking an official position on Worsley’s bill. But she did echo some of Schneier’s concerns.

“Banking has insurance for when things are hacked into and when there’s a loss of revenue,” Patrick said. “In elections we don’t really have that type of margin for error.”