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MU researchers partner with Boone County Clerk to develop new voting system technologies

Left to right, Bill Harrison, MU associate professor of computer science; Dale Musser, director of Engineering’s IT program; Keith Politte, manager of technology testing for MU Reynolds Journalism Institute; and Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren are collaborating on a federal grant project Noren received to develop new voting system technologies to improve the process for military personnel and others living overseas.

American military personnel and citizens working and/or living overseas historically have experienced difficulty casting their votes in national elections. Contributing factors include inaccessibility and reliance on foreign mail systems. In the 2008 presidential election, more than 30 percent of overseas voters had difficulty with the process, causing the federal government to adopt the Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act (MOVE) in 2009, mandating states to provide election materials electronically.

“It has been a particularly frustrating situation,” said Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren, during a December press conference at which she announced she had been awarded a $740,000 grant from the Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program (DOD FVAP) to explore new technologies to tackle the problem. Noren has partnered with researchers at the University of Missouri to tackle the task.

Working with Columbia’s nationally-recognized county clerk are engineering faculty members, Dale Musser, director of the college’s IT program, and Bill Harrison, associate professor of computer science and director of the college’s Center for High Assurance Computing. Collaborators also include David Valentine from MU’s Truman School of Public Affairs and the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Keith Politte.

Noren described the project as a very broad range of activities to create tools that will provide voters with access to a well-designed, secure ballot delivery system compatible with the increasing number of platforms people use to communicate. Working with computer science faculty will allow the group to develop test protocols. MU will receive $550,000 for its involvement in the project.

“We need to advance the body of knowledge in this area. We can’t wait for vendors to test technology in real elections because if it fails, people lose faith,” said Noren, who called the project one of the most exciting things she’s been able to do since she became Boone County Clerk more than 33 years ago.

“We have expertise that can be brought to bear on this very important issue,” said MU Engineering Dean Jim Thompson. “We are happy to be a part of the project.”

Also included in the grant are funds for the Missouri Secretary of State to incorporate the new system into current procedures. Plans call for open-source software to be developed, making the system available and cost-effective for even the smallest jurisdictions.

“It may be a project that will be emulated,” Noren said. “We have a real chance to create something that can be a model for election officials all across our state as they work to increase efficiencies for military and overseas voters.”