Don't take ballots from smiling strangers

Wendy Grossman received a series of amateurish emails suggesting that she sign up for electronic ballots – spam or anti-voting fraud? She explains how both problems are prevalent for voters.

Image: CC-BY-NC Flickr: Keith Ivey

Friends, I thought it was spam, and when I explain I think you'll see why.

Some background. Overseas Americans typically vote in the district of their last US residence. In my case, that's a county in the fine state of New York, which for much of my adult life, like clockwork, has sent me paper ballots by postal mail. Since overseas residents do not live in any state, however, you are eligible to vote only in federal elections (US Congress, US Senate, and President). I have voted in every election I have ever been eligible for back to 1972.

So last weekend three emails arrived, all beginning, "Dear voter".

The first one, from nysupport@secureballotusa.com, subject line "Electronic Ballot Access for Military/Overseas Voters":

An electronic ballot has been made available to you for the GE 11/6/12 (Federal) by your local County Board of Elections. Please access www.secureballotusa.com/NY to download your ballot.

Due to recent upgrades, all voters will need to go through the "First Time Access" process on the site in order to gain access to the electronic ballot delivery system.

The second, from "NYS Board of Elections", move@elections-ny.gov, subject "Your Ballot is Now Available":

An electronic ballot has been made available to you for the November 6, 2012 General Election. Please access https://www.secureballotusa.com/NY to download your ballot.

Due to recent upgrades, all voters will need to go through the "First Time Access" process on the site in order to gain access to the electronic ballot delivery system.

If you have any questions or experience any problems, please email NYsupport@secureballotusa.com or visit the NYS Board of Elections' website at http://www.elections.ny.gov for additional information.

The third, from nysupport@secureballot.com, subject, "Ballot Available Notification":

An electronic ballot has been made available to you for the GE 11/6/12 (Federal) by your local County Board of Elections. Please access www.secureballotusa.com/diaspora_ny-1.5/NY_login.action to download your ballot.

Due to recent upgrades, all voters will need to go through the "First Time Access" process on the site in order to gain access to the electronic ballot delivery system.

In all my years as a voter, I've never had anything to do with the NY Board of Elections. I had not received any notification from the county board of elections telling me to expect an email, confirming the source, or giving the Web site address I would eventually use. But the county board of elections website had no information indicating they were providing electronic ballots for overseas voters. So I ask you: what would you think?

What I thought was that the most likely possibilities were both evil. One was that it was just ordinary, garden-variety spam intended to facilitate a more than usually complete phishing job. That possibility made me very reluctant to check out the URL in the message, even by typing it in. The security expert Rebecca Mercuri, whose PhD dissertation in 2000 was the first to really study the technical difficulties of electronic voting, was more intrepid. She examined the secureballotusa.com site and noted errors, such as the request for the registrant's Alabama driver's license number on this supposedly New York state registration page. Plus, the amount of information requested for verification is unnerving; I don't know these people, even though secureballotusa.com checks out as belonging to the Spanish company Scytl, which provides election software to a variety of places, including New York state.

The second possibility was that these messages were the latest outbreak of longstanding deceptive election practices which include disseminating misinformation with the goal of disenfranchising particular groups of voters. All I know about this comes from the 2008 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, a panel organized by EPIC's Lillie Coney. And it's nasty stuff: leaflets, phone calls, mailings, saying stuff like Republicans vote on Tuesday (the real US election day), Democrats on Wednesday. Or that you can't vote if you've ever been found guilty of anything. Or if you voted in an earlier election this year. Or the polling location has changed. Or you'll be deported if you try to vote and you're an illegal immigrant. Typically, these efforts have been targeted at minorities and the poor. But the panel fully expected them to move increasingly online and to target a wider variety of groups, particularly through spam email. So that was my second thought. Is this it? Someone wants me not to vote?

This election year, of course, the efforts to disenfranchise groups of voters are far more sophisticated. Why send out leaflets when you can push for voter identification laws on the basis that voter fraud is a serious problem? This issue is being discussed at length by the New York Times, the Atlanticelsewhere. Deceptive email seems amateurish by comparison.

I packed up the first two emails and forwarded them to an email address at my county's board of elections from which I had previously received a mailing. On Monday, there came a prompt response. No, the messages are genuine. Some time that I don't remember I ticked a box saying "OR email", and hence I was being notified that an electronic ballot was available. I wrote back, horrified: paper ballot, by postal mail, please. And get a security expert to review how you've done this. Because seriously: the whole setup is just dangerously wrong. Voting security matters. Think like a bank.

 

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series.

 

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