Politics & Government

An online voting lobbyist’s misleading testimony ...

North Miami voters participate for a November runoff special election for mayor at Sunkist Grove Community Center.
North Miami voters participate for a November runoff special election for mayor at Sunkist Grove Community Center. Miami Herald

Introducing himself as a former Oregon state elections official, online voting industry lobbyist Donald DeFord vouched authoritatively to a Washington state legislative panel in late January as to the merits of statewide internet voting.

Oregon, he testified, ultimately came to the “same solution” offered by a bill before the Washington state House that would allow everybody to cast their election ballots by email or fax – an option that top cyber security experts warn would expose elections to hackers.

“First in a special congressional election and then statewide, we made our accessible online ballot delivery and return system available to any voter who was not able to use a paper ballot,” DeFord, who previously led Oregon’s program under the federal Help America Vote Act, told the committee.

There was a big problem, however, with the testimony he gave in his current job as a regional sales director for San Diego-based Everyone Counts.

Oregon doesn’t allow voters to send in marked ballots electronically, except for troops and citizens living abroad who have been prevented from mailing their absentee ballots due to an emergency or other extenuating circumstances.

DeFord now says he “misspoke.”

“There was a little bit of confusion about language in there. I probably could have been more clear about it,” he said in phone and email exchanges. “... I did not intend to imply that Oregon has expanded electronic ballot return to all voters.”

DeFord’s wasn’t the only misleading testimony to the State Government Committee meeting in Olympia, Wash. Last month, McClatchy reported that a Pentagon liaison testified at the same hearing that the Defense Department supported the bill, which it didn’t. How that happened – for at least the second time – is a curious question in itself.

An examination of the representations that day could serve as a caution sign for states where vendors are peddling an array of online voting software and their lobbyists are pushing for expanded use of internet voting.

Cyber experts say that they’ve yet to see a secure online voting system, and that emailed and faxed ballots are the most vulnerable of all to hackers who might seek to tamper with election results. Heeding these warnings, Congress has sought to bar use of federal grant dollars to purchase online systems until the National Institute of Standards and Technology sets security standards. The agency has given no hint that such an advance will occur soon.

That hasn’t stopped the industry lobbying, and it’s already paid dividends. While the proposed legislation in Washington is dead for this session, the state is among 29 that have adopted some form of online voting, at least for overseas servicemen, their families and Americans living abroad. Alaska recently implemented Internet voting statewide, and a 2011 law allows any voter in Washington to do it so long as he mails in an original ballot with a signature attesting to his identity.

Whether DeFord intended to mislead the legislative committee, as it contemplated dropping the requirement that online voters submit an original ballot, is open for debate.

He began by saying that he believes online voting should be expanded to make it easier for disabled Americans to cast ballots.

Everyone Counts’ system, he said, has been used in 11 Oregon counties to deliver ballots electronically, allowing people impaired from getting to the polls to print them out and mail them. (Oregon and Washington require most voters to mail their ballots).

Deford then noted that the National Federation of the Blind last year passed a resolution calling for states to approve online voting.

In Oregon, he said, “I saw firsthand how this system made voting possible for many who would not otherwise have participated in the electoral process.”

“Many with cognitive disabilities couldn’t access a paper ballot, some because of traumatic brain injury. Others who suffer from macular degeneration have no desire to identify themselves as disabled (and) … simply drop out.”

An online ballot return system, DeFord said, “allows each of those voters to continue to participate in the electoral process with dignity, anonymity and all of the security necessary to conduct an election.”

He cited the experience of a school teacher who was undergoing rehabilitation following an injury and who feared missing exercising his right to cast a ballot for the first time. But Everyone Counts’ system enabled him to do so electronically, DeFord said.

Asked weeks later about this example, DeFord said his memory may have failed, and that he believed the teacher was actually a woman who was permitted to vote electronically because she was a military spouse whose husband was overseas.

“But that was the point,” he said. “There really isn’t any difference between a disabled military voter and any other disabled voter…. Someone in the next bed in a similar situation would not be able to benefit from the same technology.”

He said his testimony likely gave a misimpression because he was mainly pitching the advantages of being able to deliver ballots electronically, such as to a tablet computer, so that the voter could print out a ballot and mail it. He said marketing officials at Everyone Counts have since spoken internally to ensure against a repeat.

“Since then,” DeFord said, “I’ve been very careful to describe online ballot delivery versus online ballot return.”

He also told McClatchy that federal grant dollars for new voting systems are due to dry up soon, freeing states to buy whatever system they wish.