New Jersey Election Official Uses Hotmail to Collect Voter Ballots

Photograph by Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

The vote-by-e-mail idea came about as a result of the destruction leveled on New Jersey by Hurricane Sandy.

As if voting by e-mail weren’t insecure enough, an election official in New Jersey has now instructed citizens who can’t get their ballots through to swamped government e-mail servers to send them instead to his personal Hotmail account, according to BuzzFeed.

You read that right: Hotmail. For voting.

The vote-by-e-mail idea came about as a result of the destruction leveled on New Jersey by Hurricane Sandy, and the concept by itself has some merit as a what-else-are-you-going-to-do emergency measure in a disaster zone. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s adminstration issued a directive on Nov. 3 allowing the practice, to allow displaced voters and emergency responders to participate in the election.

But practically speaking, it’s a nightmare, since e-mails are easily spoofed and votes can be intercepted and changed, several security experts pointed out in this Bloomberg News story.

So, enter the latest reason why voting by e-mail has security experts up in arms.

When voters in Essex County, New Jersey, found their ballots bouncing back from the official government e-mail addresses in recent days, Christopher Durkin, the county clerk, offered up his own Hotmail account as an alternative, according to the BuzzFeed account, which cited this post on the official Facebook page for the township of West Orange. It didn’t take long for security experts to squash that as a good idea.

Ashkan Soltani, a security and privacy consultant, checked out the Hotmail account and found that the password-retrieval function used a question that’s likely easy to answer with a little public-records research: Durkin’s mother’s maiden name. Password retrievals are a very common way that e-mail accounts get hacked. See Sarah Palin’s Yahoo hacking incident in 2008, and concerns raised last year over the Indian government’s widespread use of Web-based e-mail .

Durkin did not respond immediately to an e-mailed request for comment.

New Jersey had few good options on this one. Voting by e-mail was clearly not the preferred way the state wanted to handle its balloting. Whether it turns out to be the least bad of a bunch of bad options — or just the flat-out worst, if hackers can manipulate the results — is something that should start becoming clearer tomorrow.

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