TALLAHASSEE - A small Panhandle county that is home to one of the world's largest air bases is embarking on a sweeping experiment in Internet voting that could transform elections in the 21st century.But the push by Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Pat Hollarn to use the Internet to make it easier for U.S. soldiers overseas to vote is drawing fire from voting activists who call her project ''unsafe'' and contrary to a new law that requires the state to use paper ballots.
Frustrated by the pace of overseas voting efforts undertaken by the Department of Defense in recent years, Hollarn has championed a plan that will let those living on, or near, three military bases in the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan cast ballots in the November election.
During a 10-day period just before Election Day, voters living abroad will be able to enter a computer kiosk and vote on an encrypted electronic ballot, which will eventually be shipped to Florida via the Internet and then counted. Poll workers will be on site to verify that the person is a registered Okaloosa County voter.
Hollarn, an elections supervisor for the past 20 years, views her ''distance balloting project'' as just another type of absentee ballot that uses the Internet instead of the mail. The ballot will have all of the federal, state and local races that appear on the one used in Okaloosa County.
''This is strictly an alternative method of absentee-ballot delivery and return for people where mail is a significant problem,'' Hollarn said.
While the project is open to any Okaloosa voter living abroad, the thrust is clearly aimed at military voters. Okaloosa County, home to sugar-white sand beaches and fewer than 200,000 residents, is also home to the massive Eglin Air Force Base.
Hollarn, whose husband was in the Air Force, has set up a private group to help with the project. The group has the military-sounding name of Operation BRAVO Foundation. BRAVO stands for Bring Remote Access to Voters Overseas.
In the chaotic 2000 presidential election, overseas ballots returning to Florida became one of the flash points during the contentious recount that resulted in George W. Bush narrowly winning the presidency. The campaigns of Bush and Al Gore battled over whether to accept overseas ballots received after Election Day that lacked a postmark to show when the ballot was cast.
Voting-rights activists say they don't disagree that the return of absentee ballots for voters living overseas has been a significant problem. A recent report by the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission estimated that in 2006, only one-third of absentee ballots sent abroad were eventually returned and counted. The biggest problem is that military and overseas voters frequently move and don't tell election authorities.
But the idea of using the Internet to transmit ballots -- passing through a server in Europe maintained by a Spanish company helping with the pilot project -- is chilling to some who worry about the security of such a system, which could wind up handling about 900 ballots.
''We all particularly feel for our military personnel overseas, but this is not the way to do it,'' said Dan McCrea, president of Florida Voters Coalition. ``This is unsafe, and it makes their ballots and their voice less secure in Florida's elections.''
ASSURANCE ON SAFETY
Hollarn, who chides those opposed to cyber-voting as flat-earthers, insists that the voting mechanism will be safe, pointing out that the machines and software supplied by Scytl Secure Electronic Voting will be reviewed by an independent team of computer analysts.
Alec Yasinsac, a Florida State University computer scientist on the Operation BRAVO Foundation's board, said the only reason he is involved is to ensure that overseas voters get their votes counted.
But opposition to the project goes beyond whether cyber-ballots are safe. McCrea contends that the entire concept is ''illegal,'' since Florida law now requires everyone except disabled voters to use paper ballots.
The Florida Department of State last year adopted a rule that allows ''electronic transmission'' of absentee ballots, but McCrea questions how that rule could pass muster with the plain wording of the law. He plans to send a letter to Secretary of State Kurt Browning questioning the legality of the project.
Browning, whose office would have to certify the project, said that the state would not approve it if there are lingering questions.
'We just want to make sure there is ballot security, we want to make sure the system is sound, we want to make sure that voters' ballots are timely received,'' Browning said.
Hollarn, who has lined up volunteers and has used only $50,000 of taxpayer money for a project that may cost as much as $700,000, said that even if the project doesn't pan out, it will be worth the time and effort.
''We could possibly fail, but if we fail, we have learned something not to do,'' Hollarn said.
``I believe we are on the right track.''
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers