Faxing Isn’t What You Think It Is: Exploring Alternatives to Mitigate Risks

Anyone working in an office until around 2010 likely recalls the oversized machines that fax, copy and scan, and feature the distinctive dial tone of an outgoing fax. This, however, may be a foreign concept for those more recently entering the workforce.

The use of fax machines has dipped significantly since their heyday in the 1980s and many of the younger generation wouldn’t know how to use one. Yet, for military and overseas voters, faxing is still one of the primary methods to return voted ballots using an electronic method, as opposed to snail mail.

Military and overseas voters covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) often face unique challenges in requesting, receiving and returning election materials due to living in austere conditions abroad where they don’t have access to many forms of communication. Election officials and state legislatures prioritize giving these voters every chance to cast a ballot — in many cases they are defending our country, after all. As such, 31 states allow for some method for these voters to return a ballot electronically.

Many states specifically use the term “fax” or “facsimile” in statute and list it as one of the methods of electronic ballot return. It is the only permitted method of electronic return in seven states and, in 2016, it accounted for 36% of the total transmitted military and overseas citizen ballots. In some cases, this language is a vestige from previous decades when fax was more heavily used but may also be due to a perception that faxing using land lines is a more secure method of transmitting ballots.

It’s important to note that what we traditionally think of as faxing by use of traditional land lines is not the way that documents are typically faxed today. Household and business landlines are becoming less common. More people are relying on online fax services, which is a trend accelerated by the global pandemic when an influx of workers shifted to working remotely.

A fax today doesn’t look the way it did when the technology was first invented in the 1800s when reproductions of images were sent via telegraph. The method isn’t even the same as it was in the 1990s when the Federal Voting Assistance Program started its Electronic Transmission Service, allowing servicemembers serving in the Persian Gulf to send and receive election materials via fax.

Faxing today isn’t completely reliant on telephone networks; it often uses the internet. Multipurpose fax machines commonly used today typically access an external network, introducing many of the same potential vulnerabilities as other internet-connected systems. At the same time, faxing has proven incapable of evolving, and does not incorporate the security mitigations available to other networked devices.

However, secure electronic voting methods are not entirely far from reach. There is a way to electronically verify digital signatures for Military voters through the end-to-end encryption of a Department of Defense Common Access Card, also known as a CAC. In January 2023, the Federal Voting Assistance Program submitted a Report to Congress on End-to-End Electronic Voting Services. The report describes the opportunity for the Federal Government to utilize email transmissions for Military personnel and election officials with CACs. A CAC comes with digital signature verification, allowing enhanced encryption of the sender and recipient. Unfortunately, a CAC falls under the Department of Defense, which, as it stands, does not extend end-to-end email verification between Military personnel and election officials. There would need to be State level authorization access to accept election materials from digital signatures. However, there is an opportunity to research alternatives such as the Federal Public Key Infrastructure, or FPKI, working in conjunction with other Federal partners.

Exploring more secure electronic submission alternatives to faxing is vital for helping Military and Overseas voters. States may want to consider their permitted methods of electronic return for UOCAVA voters in light of evolving technologies and the fact that faxing today isn’t the same as faxing in the pre-internet era.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson:

Voting Abroad: Lessons and Takeaways from Italy 2022

The Overseas Voting Initiative (OVI) traveled to Italy in December 2022 to gain a better understanding of the challenges that Americans living overseas face when voting from abroad.

The first day of meetings in Venice kicked off with Denise Tecchio from American Corners based in Trieste, Italy. American Corners, or American Spaces, are supported by the U.S. Department of State and provide cultural programs and events for foreign citizens. In addition to providing English language classes, a maker space for doing crafts and DIY projects and a ukulele club to sing English songs, Ms. Tecchio’s group assists American citizens with information on elections and voting. American Corners in Triste coordinates with the U.S. Embassy in Milan to help voters send their ballots by diplomatic post. The OVI group had a good conversation with Ms. Tecchio about the barriers to voting in primaries, which is not just a problem faced by overseas citizens, but a nationwide turnout problem.

Upon arrival in Florence the following day, the group traveled to the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, containing the headstones of 4,392 Americans who died defending freedom during World War II in Italy. The group heard from an American citizen who is the superintendent of the facility, which is owned by the U.S. government, about the history of the war effort in Italy. Election Assistance Commission Chair Thomas Hicks and Commissioner Donald Palmer, recently retired Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos and Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) Director Scott Wiedmann laid wreaths at the memorial.

The next day’s meetings began with information on FVAP’s Ambassador program. Developed over the last several years, the program engages expatriate Americans living in a country to act as liaisons to help U.S. citizens vote. Ambassadors are currently located in Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. Italy’s FVAP Ambassador, Sean Greene, told the group that the most common question he gets are about a voter’s residency and which address to use when voting. He also received many practical questions, like how to provide the embassy a ballot to include in the diplomatic pouch, how to fold an FVAP-provided DYI envelope and whom to contact with questions. Mr. Greene noted that during the pandemic it was more difficult to engage voters, but he was able to engage overseas citizens online through social media and Zoom Q&A sessions facilitated by the embassy and consulates. Going forward, Mr. Greene suggested that FVAP could have regional ambassadors who set up virtual office hours and conduct much of their outreach online.

The afternoon session in Florence and morning session in Rome featured discussions with expatriates about the barriers they face in returning ballots from abroad. Of note, these discussions highlighted that Europe has stronger privacy laws than we are accustomed to in the United States, making it difficult to identify and track U.S. citizens living abroad. This can make it hard to reach these citizens to inform them of their right to vote and how to cast a ballot. It can also take a long time for mail to travel from abroad to the United States, and there is sometimes a lack of trust in the local mail system, particularly in Italy.

Another barrier is simply understanding the system. Expatriates don’t always realize that getting a ballot is a multi-step process that requires a citizen to first register to vote and then request a ballot, or that the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) in most states achieves both of these requests. Additionally, depending on their state of residency, voters may have to request a ballot each calendar year. There is also a misunderstanding about “intent to return,” the question that classifies overseas citizens as living permanently overseas or temporarily overseas, which affects the type of ballot voters are eligible to receive in some states. Often, U.S. citizens living abroad aren’t sure whether or not they will return to the U.S. and they have difficulty answering the question. They may also worry about tax implications, both in the U.S. and in their current country of residence, depending on how they answer the question.

The final activity of the group was a highlight for many – a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Rome and a tour of the mail facilities. The Embassy in Rome and other U.S. Overseas Missions (embassies and consulates) provide secure collection boxes for U.S. citizens to return their ballots during federal elections. Ballots are sent to the U.S. via an unclassified diplomatic pouch, through the Diplomatic Post Office (DPO). Diplomatic pouches containing ballots and other unclassified mail are sent first to a sorting facility in Dulles, Virginia, and then put into the U.S. mail stream. This process has important implications for election officials because many states permit ballots from military and overseas voters to be counted if they are received after election day but postmarked beforehand. The issue of how they are postmarked when received at a U.S. embassy and when they are received at the Dulles sorting facility thus may affect whether the ballot is ultimately counted or not.

The ability for overseas citizens to track their ballots through the system is another area of concern for those living abroad. Engaged voters like to be informed of when their ballot arrives in the U.S., is in the hands of election officials and is ultimately counted. Using the DPO system described above, State Department employees and their eligible family members can track their ballots, but expatriates not associated with the State Department don’t have tracking capabilities.

The conversations and many lessons learned from the trip to Italy will help inform the work of the OVI in the coming years, with a particular focus on understanding the unique barriers of private, non-military citizens living overseas.

Election 2020 in Review: Poll Watchers, Observers and the Ballot Duplication Process

Definition of ballot duplication

Before the November 2020 election, the Overseas Voting Initiative anticipated an increase in absentee/by-mail ballots throughout the country, and the corresponding necessity for election jurisdictions to examine their ballot tabulation processes. In a series of articles, published between July and September the ballot duplication (or transcription) process in states was assessed.

All states allow poll watchers or observers access to some parts of the election process, and many states permit these individuals to be present during tabulation processes, including ballot duplication/transcription. In the midst of a global pandemic, states were faced with the question of how to allow the public or authorized observers access to tabulation processes while still maintaining social distancing and keeping election officials and observers safe. This September 23, 2020 article highlighted some of the ways states were planning on dealing with this issue, including streaming tabulation processes online and providing more space to process ballots. Now that a very challenging election is over, this article analyzes what worked and what could be improved in the realm of observing ballot tabulation processes.

As members of the Overseas Voting Initiative’s working group reflected on how they handled election observation of the ballot duplication process, several ideas emerged.  

  • For remote observation, in which the ballot duplication and other ballot tabulation processes are streamed online:
    • Require those who want to observe remotely to provide their name, address, and other information and to accept conditions/guidelines for remote observation (like Orange County, CA did here).
    • Track Internet Service Providers (ISPs) of those observing remotely so that if someone illegally takes a screen shot of a ballot or otherwise abuses their rights as an observer, they can be identified for possible investigation and penalty.
    • Keep recordings of the process to combat misinformation. If there is a manipulated or misunderstood video circulating, use the original to combat the false narrative.
    • Livestreams should have some context, whether it is a voice-over of what is happening as ballots are being processed, on-screen text explaining the process, or both. Livestreams could contain “pop-up” messages periodically explaining the process.
  • For in-person observation of ballot duplication/transcription processes:
    • Create a dedicated “ballot duplication” area with signs that describe the process and what is happening to give observers context for what they are seeing.
    • Explain the entire process and lay out expectations for what observers will be seeing ahead of time.
    • Provide observers with handouts that explain the process. 
    • Speak with observers frequently and do a “tip of the hour” to explain more about the process.

Although 2020 was an extraordinary year requiring adaptations and quick thinking, many of the processes that election officials put in place for remote and in-person observation of tabulation processes will likely be useful in the future as well.

Election officials are planning for remote observation of post-election processes, including ballot duplication, due to COVID-19 pandemic

Definition of ballot duplication

This is an extraordinary year for election officials in many ways. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more voters will be voting by absentee or mail ballots rather than risk going into a crowded polling place. State laws on who can vote by absentee or mail ballot varies, but every election official in the country will see more absentee or mail ballots than typical. This will mean an uptick in the number of ballots that may need to be duplicated (or transcribed) before they can be sent through ballot tabulating equipment. See the first blog in our series on ballot duplication for more details on this process.

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