Friday, August 5, 2011

Natalie E. Tennant: Internet Voting Profile in Courage

Natalie E. Tennant is a lady politician with more guts than any man in the same office in other states; that is, Secretary of State.

She takes seriously the long standing policy of the League of Women Voters in her state, West Virginia. That policy includes this, "Election laws should serve the voter with maximum convenience, simplicity, clarity, and impartiality" (at,

Tennant applies this principle by providing Internet voting for WV's overseas military voters. Doesn't giving overseas military personnel a secure and convenient means to vote sound like a common sense way to pay them back for their service? If you think so, you may be surprised to here just how uncommon this is.

With rare exception, the growth of Internet voting in the United States is being stunted by special interests. These interests first emerged in 2004.

In 2004 the Department of Defense (DoD), and its sub-agency the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), had an Internet voting system all set up for overseas voters to use in the up coming state and federal elections. The system was ready to handle 100,000 voters, from the half dozen states that volunteered for the trial. Using their own PC, overseas voters could log on to a secure website, and after their registration is checked, vote online. DoD and FVAP officials were so confident that their system was able to mitigate all security threats that they invited 10 outside experts to come and inspect the system, known as the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment, or SERVE. At least four of the 10 were known anti-Internet voting computer scientists.

FVAP personnel took the whole team on the first of several planned visits. After only the second visit, the four got together in private and wrote a scathing criticism full of speculative “coulds” and “possibles,” but short on facts and science. The entire election, they alleged, among other things, could be controlled by some undetectable hacker. (They forgot to mention that the system had an intrusion detection capability.) Then they went to the New York Times with their “report,” without any peer review or opportunity for FVAP to attach a response.

The Times, and other major newspapers, played up the story with so much sensation (a hacker could elect the president!) that Undersecretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, felt compelled to order a halt to the program. Thereafter, this report, its authors, and a small cadre of well-funded activists have led the way in discouraging FVAP, or any state government, from further attempts at Internet voting trials. They now have a full time staff that follows the legislative process in Congress and each of the 50 states. Whenever they see an Internet voting bill introduced into a committee, they go into action to stop it. They buttonhole committee members, pull out their well-worn report, spout off all the “coulds” and “possibles,” without any science to back up their claims, and then remind the elected officials of how they killed SERVE in 2004, using their access to the New York Times and other newspapers.

Most elected officials buckle under this pressure. They cannot afford the costs of publicity that would be required to fight the activists in the media. As they know well, the best way to get reelected is to avoid controversy, and push off the Internet voting proposals “for further study.” As a result, in 2010 over 30 states electronically sent blank ballots to their voters who were in the military and overseas, but they avoided using systems based on the SERVE model. These states required that voted ballots be returned by fax, email, or snail mail – anything but real Internet voting on an official website. Indeed, even now, in 2011, FVAP is offering states up to $16M for electronic ballot delivery systems; but not for systems based on the SERVE model. To get financial aid, the systems must use ballots returned by fax, email, or snail mail.

Despite the threats of anti-Internet voting activists, in 2010 West Virgina enacted a trial of true Internet voting for its overseas members of the military, who were eligible to vote in one of the several volunteer counties. As with SERVE, overseas West Virginians in the military could use their own PC to log on to the state’s secure website, and after their registration is confirmed, cast their vote online. The program was supported in the legislative process, developed, and implemented by WV Secretary of State, Natalie E. Tennant.

Just as in the military, a Secretary of State, or any public official, deserves praise whenever they show courage under fire. Tennant showed this courage when she went ahead with her Internet voting trial for overseas military voters. As she stated on the WV SOS website,

“The members of our military are putting their lives on the line every day … I thought it was extremely important to make sure they had secure access to an online ballot. We had to make sure their voice was heard.”

The system was first used in the state’s primaries. Voter response was quite positive. Tennant reported that of all the satisfaction survey respondents, “we received no negative feedback of the pilot program.”

While other methods of absentee voting saw return rates of about 40 percent, the Internet voting ballot return rate was over twice that. Tennant was so impressed that, in her report to the state legislature, she asked them to allow additional counties to participate in the 2010 General Election, which they did.

Tennant made her final report to the WV legislature on 1/19/2011. This report included the statistics on the use of Internet voting in the general election. For example, in the counties where Internet voting was offered, of all the voters who requested that their absentee ballots be delivered electronically, 76% voted on the secure website. In the counties using standard mail as the absentee ballot transmission method, 58% of the requested ballots were returned. Clearly, there was a higher rate of participation with Internet voting.

Most of the voters who used Internet voting in the primary also used it in the general election, indicating a high degree of satisfaction. Indeed, of those who took the satisfaction survey, 100% rated the system’s ease of use as “simple” or “somewhat simple.”

Tennant reported that to date, “no significant deficiencies or concerns have been identified with the West Virginia online voting pilot.” Unfortunately, because of all the media attention to the fiasco in Washington DC’s Internet voting trial (which was set up by Oliver and Hardy, and then hacked by yet another comedian), Tennant did not recommend on her own authority that Internet voting should be used in all of West Virginia’s counties. She suggested instead that a study group be convened to decide the matter.

Tennant is in the lead on other election reforms. For example, she is overseeing WV’s experiment with the public financing of campaigns for election to some state court judgeships.

Tennant made a try for the West Virginia governorship in the first half of 2011, but lost in the Democratic primary; perhaps her courage under fire was not given sufficient profile.


Tennant advocates for more Internet voting in the US at, “Making the Case for Online Voting.” 

Suggested Readings
On the DC fiasco:

On the Security of WV’s Internet Voting System:
FAQ, at

Tennant addresses the technical aspects of how the state handled security issues in two papers.
1. Tennant’s NIST Position paper of June 9, 2010 (Written after the primary vote, and before the general election; with her request for an extension of the program to other counties)

2. West Virginia's SOS report on the Online Voting Pilot Project 1/19/2011

Also see:
Pew Center Reports

Internet voting for military, overseas voters debuts in West Virginia
Clerks and secretary of state pleased with first use

Pew Report on Military Voting Reform

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
Twitter: wjkno1
You Tube:


Anonymous said...

Internet voting for the troops is great if you don't care whether their votes are counted accurately or not. Unfortunately with internet voting, you'll never know.

Personally I think the troops deserve to have their votes counted by something other than a 100% unverifiable, faith-based system.

One more thing, you wrote "...a small cadre of well-funded activists...." You're kidding me, right?

wjk said...

RE: "you'll never know"
Strictly speaking, how is that different from today's paper-based system? W/ 110M votes being counted by government employees in over 3000 voting jurisdictions, will you ever know if the vote was counted accurately?

Fact is, computers are the most accurate counting mechanisms made by man. Do you really prefer gov employees?

RE: Verification of the Count
See my post at,

RE: kidding
I'm not kidding. They have stopped the progress of Internet voting in the US through the use of intimidation and scary stories w/o science.


Real Representation said...

I'm with Anonymous here re: "well-funded activists". If you follow the money trail, the main potential beneficiaries of online voting are corporations who wish to supply large government contracts and politicians and their supporters who wish to control the outcome of elections. The people urging caution are by-and-large individuals concerned about preserving hard-won liberties and have little or nothing to gain personally (in a financial or political sense) from preventing a move to online/internet voting.

wjk said...

Hi Real!
Thanks for commenting. You and Anonymous should do a little more research into the anti-Internet voting special interests. The Verified Voting Foundation, Overseas Voter Foundation, Fair Vote, and other activist organizations are well-funded. VVF and OVF have a full time staff of researchers who follow state legislative developments, and both have received large grants and contributions from other foundations and donors. Some of the financial info can be found on their websites. I have just looked at the public info. But w/ a little digging, I am sure more info could be uncovered. Paper-based voting makes millions of dollars for paper sellers, scanner makers, printer manufactuers, ink suppliers, DRE manufacturers, etc
Plus rabid anti-Internet voting bloggers, like Brad's Blog, make a nice living from advertisers. Your theory only innocent, well-intended citizen activists are out there is naive. Such folks exist, but they are misinformed and manipulated by crafty special interests. How about joining me in telling some truth?

wjk said...

Who are the main beneficiaries of Internet voting?

Interesting question, by Real!
He says they are the "corporations who wish to supply large government contracts and politicians and their supporters who wish to control the outcome of elections." Then he says, its not The People.

Bad news, bro! Read my post here about why Independents should demand Internet voting. Then you will see who benefits!

VoteBoat said...

People might be suspicious if that politician Natalie Tennant runs for office in an election that uses a hardware or software system she helped design, implement or lobby for.

In fact, since your system requires the public to trust certain people, it would be wise to prohibit whoever is associated by family or financial/business ties with those people from being candidates, working for candidates, or having financial/business ties with candidates.