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Missouri to pilot Internet voting project

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Secretary of State Bekki Cook has announced that Missouri has been chosen to participate in a pilot Internet voting project for military personnel and citizens living overseas, in cooperation with the United States Defense Department, according to a news release from Cook's office.

Missouri is one of three states selected to work with the Federal Voting Assistance Program to allow a small number of military personnel and citizens overseas who would have been eligible to vote absentee in the November general election, to transmit their votes over the Internet to local election officials, according to the release.

"For our entire history, it has been difficult to provide the vote to our soldiers in the field. The Pentagon believes the technology of the Internet may eventually be a solution to this problem," Cook said.

"We are honored to have the opportunity to be part of

this project, particularly because it has the potential of ensuring that our

overseas military personnel and their families are not

disenfranchised," Cook said.

"The information gathered through this project will help the Department of Defense determine how practical Internet voting may be," she added.

Enabling legislation will need to be approved in the General Assembly for Missouri to participate.

The Internet voting project was originally slated to be in place by this fall, however, staff changes at the Pentagon, among other factors, have slowed the process, according to Jim Grebing, communications director for Cook's office. However, plans continue for Missouri's participation in the future.

The existing voting process for overseas voters, Cook said, is that they must request absentee ballots by mail many weeks before the election. The ballots are mailed to them, and then the ballots have to be returned by mail. Military personnel are often relocated, sent out on assignment or located in countries where mail delivery is uncertain.

Many citizens living overseas are in remote areas where mail delivery and pick-up is sporadic and undependable. For these voters, there is no assurance that absentee ballots will arrive home in time to be counted.

A post-election survey conducted by the Federal Voting Assistance Program, revealed that more than 50 percent of the citizens who did not cast absentee votes in the 1996 election stated that their main reason for not voting was that they never received the ballot or received it too late to meet the state deadline.

Under the pilot project,

the Department of Defense will assign lengthy numbers coded for each voter, so

there is no question who is voting.

The ballot itself is encrypted, as well, to ensure secrecy.

"This system not only provides the necessary security to protect tile integrity of the ballot, it also provides a way to let the voter know that the ballot has been counted," Cook said.

Cook said that nationwide, the pilot project would also include the states of Florida and Utah. A total of 250 votes will be cast over the Internet, with 100 of those coming from Missouri.

Texas County Clerk Don Troutman and Howell County Clerk Dennis Von Allmon have agreed to have their counties serve as the Missouri sites for this project. Each county will have 50 voters participating, according to the release.

"We are pleased to have two highly respected and experienced county clerks on board to be part of this effort. They and their staffs will receive training provided by the Department of Defense," Cook said.

"The actual servicemen and women will be chosen by the Defense Department from the registration rolls of these counties," she added.

Jim Whitfield, of Chesterfield, a member of the Missouri Veterans Commission, said veterans groups are "pleased to endorse this program. Military people around the world find it difficult to vote because of the turnaround time."

Cook stressed this is not an attempt to open Internet voting to all citizens, but rather an effort to work with the Defense Department on options that are available to make sure overseas voters have the same opportunities to participate in U.S. democracy that other citizens have.

"This is a pilot project being paid for by the Defense Department. Currently, it would be too costly to provide the necessary degree of security for Internet voting to be used by the general public," Cook said.

"Our current process of having citizens go to the polls on election day and making decisions about candidates and issues is a cornerstone of our democracy. This project is not designed to change that in any way."

Cook added that the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed giving 18- to 20-year-olds the right to vote, primarily because of the argument that many soldiers were old enough to die for their country but not old enough to vote.

"We took care of that problem, but now we have a remaining roadblock with some people serving in the military who are not certain their vote will count because of the difficulty in moving ballots around the world," Cook said.

"At long last the Department of Defense sees a possible solution. I am hopeful our participation in Missouri can eventually help make that a reality."

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