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US expat casts ballot from Vienna, wonders if anyone got it

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This story was updated to correct the location US expatriate Joanna Bryson voted from.

By now, you've most likely heard of Democrats Abroad, the organization that for the first time in history is allowing US citizens to use the internet to cast ballots in a presidential primary.

It acts almost as a 51st state that allows US citizens living abroad to have a say in who wins the Democratic nomination. And with 22 Democratic delegates in tow, it wields roughly as much power as North Dakota or Vermont.

Joanna Bryson, an American citizen living in the UK, used the system to cast her ballot on Tuesday during a jaunt to Vienna. The experience has left the computer science lecturer at the University of Bath questioning how anyone could possibly verify its accuracy, should it ever come to that.

Upon casting her ballot, Bryson says she got a message encouraging her to print out a receipt of her vote. That's a common enough technique in elections that's designed to aid poll workers in the event of an audit. What was unusual in this case is that the receipt contained only one piece of information: the candidate she voted for. There was no bar code, serial number or other mark to distinguish her receipt from thousands of others that might be printed out by other American expatriates.

Typically, receipts contain additional information that provides a unique identifier while still preserving a voter's anonymity. In the event fraud is suspected, auditors check a small sample of the receipts against the recorded results and look for irregularities. It's unclear what the benefit is of a receipt that records nothing other than the chosen candidate.

"Either they're incompetent or it's an empty gesture," Bryson says.

Lori Steele, the chief executive of the company that designed the voting system for Democrats Abroad said it was designed to ensure secrecy. But she didn't exactly argue with us when we said the receipts would be of zero value in helping someone audit the results.

"Some customers demand paper as a comfort for their voters, and thats what we provided" Democrats Abroad, said Steele, whose company is called Everyone Counts.

Steele went on to say that the software used to tally the votes has been audited by academics and accounting firms. We have no doubt that's the case, but that's only one step. For elections to have merit, there also need to be mechanisms in place to audit the results themselves. If Democrats Abroad has one, the organization is keeping it a secret.

Of course, El Reg isn't the first to point out the risks that come from allowing voters to cast ballots over the net. In a piece posted Monday headlined The Democratic Party's Dangerous Experiment, computer scientists David Dill and Barbara Simons argue the voting process has sidestepped almost all the usual regulations placed on voting technology. There is simply not enough known about the process to deem it trustworthy, they say.

Now here comes the kicker to this story, and the reason people like Bryson remain skeptical of using computers to record votes: when she pushed the print button, she got a blank piece of paper. ®

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