San Jose, Calif. Despite a Pentagon project criticized this week as dangerously vulnerable to hackers and terrorists, reliable Internet voting from overseas still could be workable, computer scientists agree.
But a secure system would not be ready for this year's presidential election, they say.
Under the Pentagon project, up to 100,000 people from Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Washington -- most of them U.S. service personnel -- will be eligible to vote abroad in November.
They can vote from any cybercafe, as long as it has the right operating system and browser.
Many prominent computer experts believe the current system is irresponsible. They say rigorous precautions and security improvements, including properly trained poll workers and dedicated terminals at U.S. embassies or military bases, are needed to make Internet voting as fraud-resistant as the physical ballot box.
The U.S. military says it's willing to make significant changes to its system, known as SERVE, including installation of computer kiosks at U.S. bases and the use of data encryption.
But it won't make the changes until after a detailed analysis of this year's election results.
"We don't have blinders on," said Defense Department spokesman Glenn Flood. "Congress told us to take a look at using Internet technology to prevent the mishaps of regular snail mail for absentee voters. ... We're glad to have feedback and make modifications."
A 10-member peer review board will interview SERVE participants after they vote, and report to Congress next year. If successful, SERVE -- an acronym for Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment -- could be adapted domestically to help boost turnout among other disenfranchised groups, ranging from the elderly to college students.
Meg McLaughlin, president of Reston, Va.-based Accenture eDemocracy Services, which developed SERVE, said the system replicated in a Web browser the look and feel of digital voting systems in thousands of precincts. A final confirmation page allows changes but does not allow the voter to print out a record.
Results are transmitted to SERVE servers in undisclosed locations. Servers in counties where people are registered tap into SERVE servers on a periodic basis through a secure connection -- not the open Internet.
"The odds of this flopping are very remote," said Michael Alvarez, co-director of the CalTech-MIT/Voting Technology Project and principal investigator of the Defense Department's contract to produce SERVE.
"SERVE has gone really far to making an amazingly sophisticated and secure architecture -- the most sophisticated system I've seen," Alvarez said.
But critics say the system fails in its overarching reliance on the Internet, which they contend exposes elections to hackers, cyberterrorists, power outages, downed telephone lines, computer viruses and software bugs.