NEW YORK (Dow Jones)--For American soldiers and citizens abroad, voting by absentee ballot can be as tough as using a Florida punch-card.
Sending and receiving ballots by mail doesn't always work well, especially for troops on the move. Among service members abroad who didn't vote in the 2000 elections, 29% said it was because they didn't get their ballots in time, according to a survey by the Defense Department. Overseas military voter turnout in 2000 was 63%, compared to 70% for those based in the U.S.
That could change in this presidential-election year. Accenture Ltd. (ACN) is helping to install an Internet-based voting system for the Defense Department, which is expected to be used by about 100,000 Americans overseas. The experimental system will allow voters to cast ballots via the Web, avoiding the hassles of international mail.
Accenture's Internet-voting contract is part of the Bermuda-based consulting firm's push into the electronic-voting business. It formed a new unit last year, Accenture eDemocracy Services, following its June acquisition of Election.com, an electronic-voting firm.
Accenture also is helping install statewide, electronic voter registration systems. Demand is being fueled by the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, which allocated $3.9 billion to help states avoid the problems that led to the presidential vote recount in Florida in 2000.
But while Accenture is working to fix election-related problems, not everything has gone smoothly.
Voting Over The Internet
The Defense Department's Federal Voting Assistance Program allowed fewer than 100 voters to cast ballots via the Internet in a pilot project during the 2000 elections. It later hired Accenture to expand the project for the 2004 elections.
"If they take the time and effort to vote absentee, we want to make sure the ballots get back in time to get counted," said Polli Brunelli, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program.
So far, 51 counties in seven states have agreed to participate in the project, known as Secure Electronic Registration & Voting Experiment, or SERVE. Only people registered to vote in those counties will be able to vote over the Internet from overseas. The states include the following: Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, North and South Carolina, and Washington.
SERVE is expected to be up and running by the Nov. 2 general election. It might be in place for some primaries scheduled for the summer, Brunelli said. But first it has to be tested to ensure it's secure and works properly.
Here's how it'll work: Any voter overseas with Internet access can visit the SERVE Web site. To log in, they'll need a secret password and must answer several questions, such as "What is you mother's maiden name?"
Once logged in, the voter will see the ballot for his or her home county, said Meg McLaughlin, president of Accenture eDemocracy Services. Voters can choose candidates with a point and click of the mouse.
Upon completion of the ballot, the Web site will display a summary sheet, so that voters can verify their intended choices were recorded. Then the ballot is transmitted over the Internet to the voter's home county, which tabulates the votes. The whole process can be done in one sitting, in contrast to the days or weeks required for paper absentee ballots.
"It's usually a long period of time to get an absentee ballot," McLaughlin said. "The purpose of (SERVE) is to do that through a process that's faster, but also more convenient for them to receive that absentee ballot from wherever they may be."
Like electronic commerce, however, Internet-based voting has raised a host of concerns.
"The two concerns that everyone raises are security and fraud," said Nathaniel Persily, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who studies voting systems. "Security, in that someone might hack into the system, and fraud, in that someone other than the voter might cast the vote using the voter's password."
Both Accenture and the Defense Department say SERVE will go through rigorous testing to prevent fraud and security breaches. Also, voters must download encrypted digital codes and attach them to their electronic ballots, which will serve as virtual signatures. The ballots themselves will be digitally encrypted as they travel across the Internet. SERVE's security features are being provided by VeriSign Inc. (VRSN), of Mountain View, Calif., under contract with Accenture.
The Defense Department will use its own security experts to try to hack into system, exposing any potential flaws, Brunelli said.
Electronic Voter Registration
Another market opportunity for Accenture is electronic voter registration. Under the Help America Vote Act, states are required to install statewide voter databases by January 2006, though some are expected to be in place this year. In most states, these would replace individual county databases that aren't linked.
One purpose of creating centralized databases is to prevent people from voting in more than one county in the same election. Accenture has contracts to install the statewide systems in Pennsylvania and Florida.
But the new systems haven't been without problems. In Pennsylvania, some county election officials have complained about Accenture's system, saying it has crashed and is difficult to use.
Deena K. Dean, director of the Bucks County Board of Elections, said the new system is slower than the county's old system. She has asked state officials to halt implementation of Accenture's system, which is expected to be rolled out statewide later this year.
The Pennsylvania Department of State acknowledged it has received complaints from the counties. But spokesman Brian McDonald said the system is working well overall. He said that the problems were "minor glitches" and that the state is working with each county to make sure they're fixed.
McLaughlin said county officials have asked for features that weren't in the original $19.5 million contract to install the system. To address the problems, Accenture "may see less profit on (the contract) than we might have otherwise," McLaughlin said.
Still, Accenture will pursue voter-registration contracts in other states, McLaughlin said. It will most likely go head-to-head with traditional voting-system companies like Diebold Inc. (DBD), North Canton, Ohio; Sequoia Voting Systems, Oakland, Calif.; and Election Systems & Software Inc., Omaha, Neb. These companies make voting machines as well as voting-system software.
Sequoia believes it has advantages over a relative newcomer like Accenture. Sequoia has a wider range of products and deeper relationships with election officials, said spokesman Alfie Charles.
But Accenture likes its odds. "We have election specialist personnel backed by a large consulting organization," McLaughlin said. "These are key things that reduce risk on major statewide implementations."