Electronic ballots raise concerns in outstanding Alaska races

Election watchdog groups are worried about the role electronically submitted ballots in Alaska might play in the state’s two tight federal elections.

Ballots returned online are vulnerable to cyberattacks and lack a proper paper trail, said government accountability advocate Common Cause and election oversight group Verified Voting.

Alaska’s gubernatorial and Senate races have both dragged on long after Election Day, with opponents split by narrow margins.


Early Wednesday, The Associated Press declared former Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan (R) the winner over incumbent Sen. Mark BegichMark Peter BegichHarry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies Alaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch Alaska group backing independent candidate appears linked to Democrats MORE (D-Alaska), even though 30,000 ballots remain uncounted. Begich has yet to concede.

Former Valdez, Alaska, Mayor Bill Walker (I) maintains a thin lead over incumbent Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R), although the race remains too close to call. 

If either race “is to be determined by ballots sent over the Internet, its legitimacy is in doubt,” said Verified Voting President Pamela Smith.

It’s not clear, however, that the number of ballots returned online could swing either election.

The total number of votes submitted electronically — as high as 2,300, but more likely around 1,400, according to the Alaska Division of Elections and outside estimates — are unlikely to cover the margins in either race. 

Sullivan leads Begich by roughly 8,000 votes. Walker has about a 4,000-vote lead on Parnell. 

Still, the groups believe the process is inherently flawed. 

According to a warning on the state's site, voters returning ballots online “are assuming the risk that a faulty transmission may occur.” 

This shows election officials “are accepting that the ballots received at the elections office may not be legitimate,” said Susannah Goodman, director of the Voting Integrity Project at Common Cause. “If voters saw a warning like that in a polling place there would be outrage.”

Computer security researchers have noted there’s simply no way to secure the Internet.

The process is secured through several steps, said Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections. 

To retrieve an electronic ballot, voters have to authenticate their identity before entering a secured website. From there, they can either print out their ballot and return it by mail, or submit it electronically through the secured site.

About 4,350 people elected to receive ballot in that fashion, Fenumiai said. Just over half actually accessed and returned a finished ballot. 

“I’m a technologist, but I’m not in favor of Internet voting,” said Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who has examined computerized voting systems in six states.

Roughly 270,000 voters were cast in the Alaska elections, according to media reports.