Eager to reverse a history of low voter turnout, the little-known King Conservation District is holding the largest online election ever conducted by a public agency in the United States.

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Eager to reverse a history of low voter turnout, the little-known King Conservation District is holding the largest online election ever conducted by a public agency in the United States.

One million voters are eligible to cast ballots over the Internet from their home computers in the supervisor election that started last week and ends March 15. Registered voters in all of King County are eligible to participate, except for those in Federal Way, Enumclaw and three smaller cities.

To some observers, it’s a bold leap into a future that younger voters are yearning for. To others, it’s a misguided and dangerous outsourcing of vote-counting.

“For a small district that’s trying to conduct an election without having the existing election facilities like ballot-tabulation equipment, I think this is a smart way to go,” said Katie Blinn, who supervises local elections — but not conservation-district balloting — as co-director of elections for the Secretary of State.

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But without a paper record to back up every vote, Douglas W. Jones, associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, claims Internet voting is vulnerable to manipulation — and, he said, “Outsourcing a democracy is not a good idea.”

District officials, who experimented with electronic balloting at voting centers two years ago, say an online election is the best way they’ve found to encourage voter participation at a price they can afford.

Recent elections conducted at a handful of polling places have drawn 196 to 4,389 voters, turnouts of less than one-half of 1 percent.

If the conservation district paid King County Elections to conduct a vote-by-mail election, it could cost $1 million, money now used to stabilize bluffs, keep manure out of creeks and restore salmon habitat.

That led the district to online voting, which a private contractor is managing for $50,000.

“Over the years we’ve had our critics,” said district board Chairman Bill Knutsen. “This is the best way we have to answer their concerns, to provide an opportunity for all members of the conservation district to vote.”

Different rules

The King Conservation District, created after the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to help rural landowners protect their soil, conducts elections under a different set of rules than other public agencies. The state Conservation Commission changed the rules last year to allow online voting.

The district — which Executive Director Sara Hemphill calls “a fairly modest, humble operation” — has struggled to boost voter participation in its low-profile elections without breaking its $6 million budget.

So the conservation district hired Bellevue-based Election Trust to conduct this election using remote-voting technology from Barcelona firm Scytl Secure Electronic Voting.

Internet voting has been used mostly in party primaries, labor-union and corporate elections, and pilot projects to make voting easier for armed-forces members and other Americans overseas.

The largest previous online public election — with a fraction of the conservation-district’s voters — was a 2009 election of neighborhood board commissioners on Oahu, Hawaii. Voters there were given passcodes to vote by computer or telephone.

With some exceptions for overseas voters, online voting isn’t allowed in regular elections in Washington or any other state.

Wider use of Internet voting may be years off, state elections co-director Blinn said, but she believes it will come and will be done without compromising election integrity.

“It is the expectation for the younger generation,” Blinn said. “That’s usually one of the first questions we receive when we talk to groups that are mainly 35 and under: Why aren’t we voting on the Internet? Why are we voting on paper?”

Others disagree.

When Washington, D.C., tested an open-source electronic voting system intended for armed-forces members last year, a team of University of Michigan computer scientists hacked in and altered votes.

Each time a vote was cast, the hackers left a “calling card” on the screen, played the Michigan fight song and secretly changed the latest vote — until election officials shut down the site after two days.

“This obviously doesn’t go a long way in building public confidence,” Election Trust Managing Partner John Bodin said of the incident. But that shouldn’t tarnish a “trusted” industry leader like Scytl, he said.

Scytl’s Richmond, Va.-based managing director, Hugh Gallagher, said his company is a world leader in cryptography and, like the military, uses “layers of defense” to fend off would-be intruders. When a minister in the Philippines suggested hackers try to break into a pilot Internet election there, Gallagher said, Scytl detected 4,000 attempts — all unsuccessful — to hack into the system.

Scytl’s software received a mixed review from an expert panel commissioned by the Florida Department of State before its use by armed-forces members overseas in the 2008 election.

The reviewers said the system was as well defended against Internet-based attacks “as can reasonably be expected,” but was vulnerable to secret manipulation by insiders. To safeguard against fraud, the reviewers recommended tallying paper records of each vote.

No paper

The conservation district will have no paper record of votes cast from homes, offices or libraries — and critics of Internet voting say that’s a dangerous risk.

“I believe the Internet is extraordinarily insecure regardless whose system you are using,” said the University of Iowa’s Jones. “The way to make a secure computer in today’s world is to have it not connected to the Internet.”

For the King Conservation District, “The big issue was how can we be absolutely certain we’re not going to have a bunch of bogus votes,” Hemphill said.

So Election Trust came up with a two-step process that requires voters to submit their signatures by mail, e-mail or fax before voting. After the company verifies a signature matches the one on file with King County Elections, the voter is given a personal identification number for online voting.

As for any concerns about possible manipulation of votes, Hemphill said, conservation-district officials relied largely on assurances from Election Trust that Scytl’s system is tried and true.

“We’re not an expert in this,” Hemphill said. “We chose Election Trust. This is the fourth year of working with them. We’ve been very impressed with Election Trust’s thoroughness and attention to detail and their readiness to correct.”

Board Chairman Knutsen said he has no fear someone could tamper with election results.

And after years of low-turnout elections that some people “liked to bash,” Knutsen said, he’s delighted to offer a more convenient way for people to vote.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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