U.S. service members deserve to cast a paper ballot on election night.

That’s the premise behind a $6.8 million research effort headed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that aims to develop technology that could change the voting game for troops stationed far from home and even deployed to remote locations.

Steve Trout, head of government partnerships for DARPA contractor VotingWorks, puts his vision more bluntly: “My goal is there’s a ballot cast from the International Space Station.”

VotingWorks and DARPA held a preview demonstration Feb. 7, with military representatives and state government officials in attendance, to show what a “first-class” military voting experience could look like.

The problem, as presenters outlined it, was clear: For troops and family members, voting looks and feels very different than it does for most Americans. They mail an absentee ballot that may look unlike the one used in their state or local voting region, and won’t get counted until an audit period some time after the projected winners have all been announced.

And that difference in experience and perception directly translates to voting participation: According to information presented by VotingWorks, military voters have an average turnout of 47%, compared to 74% for civilians. Polling data presented underscores the part that voting challenges play in nonparticipation.

Some 54% of surveyed military members who wanted to vote but didn’t said they had trouble requesting an absentee ballot, and another 43% said the ballot never arrived at all. Other reasons for not voting included a too-complicated voting process, difficulty with the mailing system, and trouble accessing their state’s election website.

The technology proposal from VotingWorks would change the game with portable one-stop voting stations, compact enough to fit in a big suitcase, that print a paper ballot just like the one corresponding to a service member’s local election and also generate a label for mailing that mallet to the correct polling center, all the way up until the night of the election.

An end-to-end encrypted electronic version of the ballot is then immediately transmitted to the local election center for counting, while the paper version follows in the mail, allowing the hard copy to be verified within the three-to-four week audit window following an election.

In this scenario, the process is all enabled through the service member’s military common access card, or CAC, which verifies their identity, thereby sidestepping the most challenging problem standing in the way of large-scale electronic voting.

VotingWorks leaders are quick to stress that they’re not trying to develop an internet-based voting system. Nor, they say, are they working to solve civilian absentee voting problems.

“We are explicitly not trying to use military voting as a jumping-off point for broad internet voting,” said Ben Adida, executive director of VotingWorks. “We have aspects of our design that are only going to work for the military, and we’re 100% okay with that.”

While the effort is still in a research phase, company leaders at the end of the year want to present DARPA with a working prototype and open-source design code “so anybody can take it and go from there,” Adida said. While plans are not yet final, limited-scope pilot programs may be rolled out in 2025 to test the usefulness of the technology.

Dan Wallach, program manager for the DARPA Innovation Office, said in 2025, after the close of the 2024 presidential election cycle, will present more opportunities for trial and experimentation.

“You don’t roll out new things in a high turnout, high-stakes election,” he said. “When we’re voting for the dog-catcher, that’s when you try the new stuff.”

The innovation behind the current proposal is a dual-track system in which the voting stations, consisting of a terminal and printers for ballots and mailing labels, are distributed across military bases and deployed environments.

After securely identifying a military voter via their CAC card, the stations dispense a paper ballot, which can be filled out and mailed using the label. Ballots also are scanned electronically, allowing the encrypted votes to be instantly and securely transmitted to polling places and counted with those of local voters.

The military voter’s paper ballot will arrive after the election, but in time to be included in the vote audit, which verifies election results and can take up to four weeks after an election to complete.

To work well, the voting stations will need to be secure enough that theft or breach of a station won’t result in a compromise of ballots or voter data, and able to function with minimal internet connectivity ― while electronic transmission will be necessary to send votes, the stations need to be able to print the right local ballots and mailing labels for any military voter while offline. That’s all in the design specifications, Adida said.

“We’re going to try to do it with the minimum amount of internet and the minimum amount of cell service, sporadically,” Adida said. “Maybe at one base, you don’t have an internet connection, but maybe you can write some USB sticks and get them transported to a base that does have internet.”

Christy McCormick, the chairwoman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, expressed skepticism that the system would work as advertised.

“I was tasked with getting election results back to the Pentagon as part of my job when I was in Iraq, and we couldn’t even use CAC cards,” she said. “So there’s some huge hurdles here in these countries, especially war zones, where you’re not going to have a place to put that machine.”

McCormick, who was stationed in Iraq from 2009–2010 as an elections expert with the Department of Justice, told Military Times after the presentation that she was hopeful about the new project, but aware of the extensive collaboration from federal agencies and the Defense Department that would be needed to make such a proposal successful.

“It’s always worth the attempt,” she said, “And I hope that they can get those issues worked out, that we can enfranchise more of our overseas population.”

Wallach, of DARPA, said a combination of new and maturing technology and the narrow scope of the effort

“There’s been a lot of research on electronic voting and security over the past few decades that this program has drawn on,” Wallach said, adding that the relatively new post-election risk-limiting audit process and advances in encryption all helped to make a better military voting solution practical.

“There are a bunch of things that are very recent,” he said, “And putting them together is what’s novel.”

Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.

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