Vote of Confidence

Alec Yasinsac loves his job. “I’m living the dream, ” says the dean of the School of Computing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. “I love coming to work. I love what I do.”

As dean, he’s responsible for “producing a vision for the school and equipping the faculty and staff to reach that vision.” He boasts that USA has the state’s only school of computing. Beyond educating students, the school has the potential to attract companies to the area to provide jobs—and jobs in computing will be plentiful in the next 10 years, he stresses.

Yasinsac’s position also gives him the opportunity to do research into developing a system that will allow military members and their families to vote electronically. Though it’s a controversial topic, he feels it’s important to ensure that every voter is able to exercise his or her inalienable right to cast a ballot—and especially voters who are enlisted in the military to protect that very right for all citizens.

“I grew up with tremendous respect for the military, ” says Yasinsac, whose father and two siblings (three out of five) served in the military.

And he knows what it’s like to vote as a member of the military because he did so for 20 years. After graduating from Appalachian State University, Yasinsac joined the Marines, where he became a data systems and communications officer and then earned a doctorate while working as an ROTC instructor at the University of Virginia.

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He and his wife moved 12 times during his military career and had to cast absentee ballots because, like many who serve, he was stationed away from his home state. Yasinsac is convinced that, more than once, there were mistakes on his own ballot and it wasn’t counted—and that’s painful to him.

“I have a professional and a personal interest in analyzing remote electronic voting, ” he says.

Many civilians don’t realize how difficult it can be for those in the military to cast votes. “Throughout history, military members have been grossly disenfranchised, ” he says. “Very low numbers of members and their families are able to vote compared to resident voters, and that’s a tragedy. These are people who are putting their lives on the line for the right to vote.”

Yasinsac attributes the difficulty to two problems, which he terms latency and complexity. First there’s the latency, or delay, involved in the process. Registering to vote must be done by mail, which, for someone stationed overseas, could take up to 21 days. Casting a ballot involves more latency, from the time the election official places the ballot in the mail until the member fills it out and mails it back in—not to mention any questions he or she might have in the meantime. It’s a cumbersome, time-consuming process.

“I’ve termed this the difference between a first-class voter, who has minimal latency and complexity, and a second-class voter, who has dramatic latency and complexity, ” Yasinsac explains.

He says that another constraint placed on service members is that the military traditionally “tries to avoid anything political, ” and yet voting is “the ultimate political activity.”

“There’s a perception among the civilian population that the military is a natural environment for political coercion, ” he says. “A lot of folks are cautious about having the military part of the voting process.”

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), established during Ronald Reagan’s administration to allow military members and federal service civilians residing overseas to vote via absentee ballot, simply doesn’t do enough to help with the problem. “It does what I call chipping away, ” Yasinsac says. “I’ve got the chainsaw out. I’m committed to no longer chipping away, to making them first-class voters.”

So, in an age where almost everyone is connected to the Internet, why can’t service members simply vote online? “In a world where the Internet was safe, it would solve 98 percent of the problems, ” Yasinsac notes. But the Internet isn’t safe, and ballots could easily be compromised by “malicious intruders, ” he says.

The brightest hope is a computer system owned and maintained exclusively by the military, for the military, Yasinsac says. “The military has resources that can protect end voting devices. Combined with the reduced number of voters that such a system would impact, a system that targets the military exclusively and that leverages military resources has the best chance of being safe, ” he says.

And that’s what he’s working on right now—a system that allows military members and their families to vote electronically from remote locations.

One challenge Yasinsac faces is from his colleagues who fear that allowing the military to vote this way will lead to a “slippery slope” in which all Americans will want to get on the bandwagon and vote online, which can’t be done securely.

While he agrees with the slippery slope idea, Yasinsac is determined to analyze and test remote electronic voting to see whether it can work for the military. “I think it’s time we solve the problem of military voter disenfranchisement, ” he says. “We’re talking about a million military members, spouses and federal service employees.”

As another presidential election looms this year on November 6, Yasinsac’s frustration fuels his research. “If we look at the military voting population, we know who they are, we know where they live. There are so many things that give us hope to allow every military voter who desires to vote to cast their ballot securely.”

Michelle Roberts Matthews is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.

By Michelle Roberts Matthews

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