New Jersey's well-intentioned plans to allow voters displaced by Hurricane Sandy to vote by email or fax in the presidential elections on Tuesday predictably went awry.
The plan permitting voters to download absentee ballots before returning them by either email or fax in order to cast their vote was only announced on Saturday.
Security watchers and even enthusiasts of electronic voting gave it a luke-warm reception. Concerns floated included vote-tampering or malicious attacks. Email, without encryption, is inherently insecure.
Even though ballots could be submitted by email or fax under the NJ emergency programme, a signed hardcopy ballot had to be received later for verification.
In the end, the main problem with the hastily prepared scheme turned out to be confusion among both voters and, in isolated cases, election scrutineers. The vote-by-email system melted down in some locations because of overflowing inboxes.
BuzzFeed reports that email addresses of county clerks in the New Jersey counties of Essex and Morris bounced messages because inboxes were stuffed. In response, one clerk in Essex county directed voters to a personal Hotmail address via Facebook.
New Jersey's lieutenant governor, the state's chief election official, released a statement (PDF) on Tuesday admitting things had not gone entirely as planned, and announcing an extension to New Jersey's email-voting deadline until Friday evening. This is a deadline for casting a ballot, not the deadline for requesting a vote by email, which expired on Tuesday afternoon.
"The counties and the State are committing all available resources to quickly process email, fax, and mail-in ballot applications and to send qualified voters a ballot. Notwithstanding these efforts, it has become apparent that the County Clerks are receiving applications at a rate that outpaces their capacity to process them without an extension of the current schedule."
"Given this extraordinary volume, if a displaced voter can vote by other means, they are urged to do so."
Changes in voting laws have facilitated email and fax voting for overseas voters and military personnel since 2010. However, only 3,500 ballots were cast this way in the mid-term elections to Senate and Congress and the New Jersey experience suggests the scheme is not ready for wider use, even in extreme cases of national disaster.
Displaced New Jersey residents were also allowed to cast their vote in Tuesday's presidential and Senate races using provisional ballots at any polling station close to where they had been relocated. With hindsight this seems to have been the best answer to a difficult problem of allowing people to vote in what remains a disaster zone. ®