New Jersey residents displaced by Superstorm Sandy will be allowed to vote in Tuesday's elections via e-mail or fax, the first time civilians in the state have been allowed to vote remotely.
Despite some security concerns, the state announced the change to make it easier for voters who may have been forced by flooding, power outages or other storm damage to temporarily leave their communities. The directive also is intended to help emergency workers who are busy with disaster-relief efforts away from home.
Under the New Jersey directive, displaced storm victims qualify as "overseas voters," meaning they are eligible to vote remotely. To vote electronically, residents first must submit a ballot application by e-mail or fax to their county clerk. Once the application is approved, the clerk will e-mail or fax a ballot to the voter, who must send it back no later than Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET.
In many states, remote electronic voting is already available to members of the military and U.S. citizens living overseas, but this marks the first time that civilian residents in New Jersey have been permitted to vote via e-mail.
"This has been an extraordinary storm that has created unthinkable destruction across our state, and we know many people have questions about how and where to cast their vote in Tuesday's election," said Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in a statement. "To help alleviate pressure on polling places, we encourage voters to either use electronic voting or the extended hours at county offices to cast their vote."
In recent years, as Americans have grown used to banking, shopping and socializing online, many have wondered why they can't vote online as well. Canada, Sweden, Latvia and Switzerland all have experimented with Internet voting, and Estonia has allowed online voting for all of its citizens since 2007.
But many critics argue that Internet-based voting systems are vulnerable to hacking. Critics also worry that electronic voting leaves no paper trail, making it more difficult to determine whether there has been tampering, or some other irregularity, in a close election.
That may not be an issue in the presidential race in New Jersey, where President Barack Obama has maintained a comfortable lead over GOP challenger Gov. Mitt Romney in most polls.
"Does e-mail voting make sense for New Jersey during this emergency? It's hard to say one way or the other without a lot more information than has been released so far about how the system will work and how it will be secured," wrote computer-security expert Matt Blaze in a blog post.
"The security implications of voting by e-mail are, under normal conditions, more than sufficient to make any computer security specialist recoil in horror," he added. "E-mail, of course, is not at all authenticated, reliable, or confidential, and that by itself opens the door to new forms of election mischief that would be far more difficult in a traditional in-person polling station or with paper absentee ballots."
In their announcement of the new directive, New Jersey officials did not explain how they will authenticate e-mails or faxes from voters. A call to Guadagno's office seeking more details was not immediately returned.
New Jersey residents can find contact information for their county clerk at the New Jersey Division of Elections website.