Democrats overseas will be casting their e-ballot

Voters in Beijing will be going to the polls on Super Tuesday to vote for the U.S. Democratic Party presidential candidate of their choice.

Members of Democrats Abroad in China will be eligible, along with fellow party members in other countries outside the U.S., to participate in the first-ever Democratic Global Presidential Primary, a party initiative to increase voting options for Democrats living overseas, including e-voting.

“Americans living abroad are a constituency of their own, and we should have a voice of our own. We have different issues, and different takes on issues. That at least one party has recognized that it is its own constituency is a step forward,” said David Wolf, a native Californian who runs a technology consulting firm in the Chinese capital.

“The Democratic race is pretty darn exciting right now, so I guess everyone is just anxious to participate. We’re also getting a lot of new members. A lot of people are signing up. And the online voting is new,” said Claire Taylor, vice chair of Democrats Abroad in the Netherlands. Taylor estimated that the group’s local membership increased 30 per cent, thanks to the Global Presidential Primary.

In the U.S., Feb. 5 will see primaries in 17 states, six caucuses and a state convention on what’s known as “Super Tuesday” due to the large number of states participating and the number of delegates at stake. The Global Presidential Primary allows overseas voters to vote from Feb. 5 to Feb. 12.

At stake are 14 delegates, who will join eight “super-delegates” chosen at Democrats Abroad regional caucuses later in the year, all of whom will then participate in the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August. That makes the overseas constituency similar in size to the number of Democratic delegates in Nevada, which has 25.

Behind the electronic voting option is Everyone Counts in San Diego. Founded in Melbourne, Australia, it is “a software company with a mission to make democracy more transparent,” according to CEO Lori Steele. Its two largest elections to date were a 4 million voter mock election in the U.S., and a local authority election in the U.K. with 160,000 voters. Steele expects “tens of thousands” to participate in Tuesday’s Global Presidential Primary.

In order to facilitate outside auditing and transparency, Everyone Counts’ software is open source. The main components of the software are security, to guarantee encryption during the voting process; verification, to ensure that only the authorized voter is casting the ballot and then is not permitted to vote again using another method, and also to verify the total votes cast and the results; and accounting, to allow counting, auditing and certification of results by the appropriate election board. For the Global Presidential Primary, voting will be supported on about 20 different browsers, Steele said.

“When voters register with Democrats Abroad, they provide various personal details that would be used to help authenticate them. On Super Tuesday, just before polls open, Everyone Counts will issue each voter registered with Democrats Abroad with a ballot number and PIN,” said Steele.

“The voter is required to provide this ballot number and PIN, combined with select personal data that they used to register, to access their ballot in the live election. The system will only allow a ballot number to be used once, so if a voter has voted but tries to access a ballot again, the system locks them out.”

To participate, Democrats living outside the U.S. must first become members of Democrats Abroad, then register to vote in the Global Presidential Primary. Including a final verification step, the whole process took him a little more than 15 minutes, Wolf said. Along with e-voting, registered Democrats overseas can vote by fax, post or in person at voting centers in over 30 countries.

Members of Republicans Abroad are not being offered the same opportunity by their party, although overseas Republicans may still vote in state primaries by conventional means. Democrats who live abroad may also continue to vote absentee by conventional means through their home districts. Voting in the Global Presidential Primary does not change a voter’s registration status for the general presidential election in November.

In previous presidential election years, overseas American voters could participate in caucuses held in foreign countries, but those were limited and usually held only in major cities, making it difficult for those based elsewhere to take part. Also, because absentee balloting procedures vary not only by state but in many cases by county, voting by mail in primaries was often seen as more trouble than it was worth.

Applicants must usually declare 60 to 90 days prior to the election that they will be unable to vote at a polling place, and then must return their absentee ballot no later than the election day — not always easy in countries where postal systems are slow or unreliable.

While she lauded recent U.S. efforts, including the Global Presidential Primary, to make e-voting more readily available, Steele said it lags behind other nations.

“The U.S. has really dragged its feet on accessible e-voting for overseas voters. Other countries like Estonia run an entirely online election for their voters,” she said, for a registered base of about 1 million voters. Some states are already considering using e-voting systems like Everyone Counts’ for the general election in November. “Using open source and having transparency in elections is what is going to propel this forward more quickly,” she said.

For Wolf, who has lived in China for over a decade, being able to vote electronically changed his perspective on the election. “It has made it much more relevant. It gave me a deadline to make a decision, and for the first time in 12 years I feel re-engaged in the process.”

(Grant Gross in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.)

Related content:

E-voting to premiere at federal elections

California calls e-voting machines to order

Electronic voting has lots of problems, critics say

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