While there is a controversy raging over the legality and security of states like California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, and Vermont among others deciding to send out vote by mail (VBM) ballots to every registered voter, there is little controversy over voters applying for absentee ballots from their local election officials. U.S. Attorney General William Barr, for example, who is against the mass mailing of ballots says, “absentee ballots are fine.” The problem is that applying for an absentee ballot is not always easy or secure, often requiring what might be seen as intrusive, irrelevant, or duplicate personal information to prove voter identity.
For example, Virginia’s Board of Elections online voter portal requires a person’s driver’s license information and full social security number be provided as proof of identity, whereas the only legally required information to request a ballot is the last four digits of the voter’s social security number. In fact, if you don’t provide your driver’s license number (or don’t have one), you can’t request an absentee ballot. This is strange, considering that a mailed in paper absentee ballot application requires only the last four social security numbers be provided as an identifier. This basic information, along with the person’s name and address, is sufficient for local officials to determine whether they are a registered voter or not. Registering online for an absentee ballot cries out to be streamlined.
Two students attending Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia, stepped up to meet this need not only for Virginia, but possibly other states in the future. Senior Raunak Daga and junior Sumanth Ratna set out developing an online app called eAbsentee that makes the process of applying for an absentee ballot very easy and accessible to everyone. “With us, it’s five clicks, a one-page form that can be done from your phone,” says Raunak.
The app asks for your name, address, last four digits of your social security number, email and phone number, as well as a legal attestation of truthfulness of the information you are submitting, and you are done. Immediately afterwards, Raunak says, “Both the election registrar and applicant receive a confirmation email,” which helps ensure security of the process. State election boards will often process the electronic application within a day of receipt. Only first-time voters will need to submit a copy of a valid ID with their absentee ballot or ballot application. In Virginia, absentee ballots were sent out beginning this past Friday, the 18th of September.
Completely online absentee ballot applications were first approved by the Virginia Board of Elections in 2015 after then Republican Speaker of the Virginia House Bill Howell requested the board clarify a new state law allowing electronic signatures on absentee ballot requests. Soon afterwards, the state created its online application form.
Shortly afterwards, Raunak, while working for the nonprofit Vote Absentee Virginia, saw how puzzled voters were while trying to use the state’s portal. He thought the absentee ballot request process could be simplified, so he enlisted fellow student and friend Sumanth. Together, they spent the summer of 2019 developing the app. eAbsentee was officially deployed in September 2019 and was used in last year’s state elections. Some 750 voters used the app to request their absentee ballots.
Sumanth Ratna (left) and Raunak Daga created eAbsentee.orgPhoto: Kusum Daga
This year, with Covid-19 making people wary of going to the polls in person, and a presidential election stoking voter interest, there is greater motivation for using the app. As of this week, nearly 8,000 Virginia voters have used eAbsentee. That number will likely continue to grow, as several other changes to Virginia election regulations have been made this year. The first change is that an absentee voter doesn’t have to have a pre-approved excuse for requesting a ballot as in the past. A second is that the envelope provided for the return of the absentee ballot includes prepaid postage. The third is that the envelopes sent to and from the voter and the local board of elections will have bar codes to allow both the voter and board to track their transit through the mail. Raunak and Sumanth told me they were deeply involved with Vote Absentee Virginia in the first two efforts to make absentee voting easier.
Raunak and Sumanth, who are both planning to pursue college degrees in computer science or data science, deployed the app on PythonAnywhere which aids portability. “We built the application from the start with the intention that it be easily deployable on multiple platforms and in multiple locations,” Sumanth says. “Another person could very easily deploy our project in another state, which has been a goal since the beginning.”
If you are a Virginia voter thinking of absentee voting, you might consider using eAbsentee. Those of you in other states, well, maybe keep an eye out for it in the next election cycle.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.