The Fail-Safe: When Things Go Wrong, Will Your Plan Work?

A hurricane before an election has led New Jersey to allow for voting by email or fax — a decision that has faced criticism from security experts. Could a rushed pace force a bad decision for your organization?

Improvising in unusual or difficult situations is necessary. But are some things too important to make up as you go along?

Last week, we saw a lot of creative thinking from people who were affected by Hurricane Sandy, from talk show hosts keeping things moving despite empty audiences to major websites staying up and running with diesel fuel in lieu of electricity. There also were associations that offered a hand to those in need. So much of this stuff was inspiring and offered important lessons about leadership.

But not everything out there is winning accolades.

On Saturday, New Jersey announced that, as a last resort, it would allow registered voters in some towns affected by the storm to be treated as “overseas voters” — which would allow for voting by email or fax.

The question is, do you use a fallible system like email voting or you disenfranchise [these displaced voters]. Given that choice, it seems like this is the right thing to do.

“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,” Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno said in a statement reported by Politico. “Despite the widespread damage Hurricane Sandy has caused, New Jersey is committed to working through the enormous obstacles before us to hold an open and transparent election befitting our state and the resiliency of its citizens.”

It’s a decision that, while understandable considering the circumstances, has nonetheless raised eyebrows.

It’s not that it couldn’t work. As the September/October issue of Associations Now pointed out, electronic voting mechanisms are becoming vastly improved on the security front — good enough for associations to use. But a lot rides on national and state elections, and voting by email or fax may raise questions about potential tampering or other security challenges.

University of Pennsylvania professor Matt Blaze, a key researcher on the role of electronic voting in elections as well as security and cryptography, has raised many issues about the system in use — particularly the rush to implement it.

“Aside from the inherent security issues with email, the rushed pace creates the biggest challenges here — each county now has to work at breakneck speed to develop robust processes for voter outreach, managing ballot requests, processing emailed ballots and secrecy waivers, etc.,” he explained on his blog. “And there will be a loser in every contested race, who will now have a new opening to challenge the result. Basically, each county has less than two days to figure out how to design and deploy a full-scale voting system that the loser of each race will have considerably more than two days to figure out how to challenge. It may not ultimately matter in the presidential race, but it won’t be pretty in a lot of local races.”

On the other hand, some experts are saying, considering the options, it might be the best choice.

“There’s all kinds of problems with it,” University of California, Irvine, professor Richard Hasen told CBS News. “The question is, do you use a fallible system like email voting or you disenfranchise [these displaced voters]. Given that choice, it seems like this is the right thing to do.”

We’ve seen similar issues in the association world that offer related lessons — including IEEE’s recent security breach, when the organization didn’t immediately respond to the issue publicly but did explain what happened in detail once it had answers to offer.

When security is of utmost concern, a rushed response could prove troublesome. But on the other hand, responding too slowly and too carefully can be problematic.

Knowing the potential dangers New Jersey faces, are they taking the right approach with today’s election? And could they have even prepared for this kind of situation, anyway?

(Photo by prapann / 123RF Stock Photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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