America, let’s face it, you suck at voting.
The 2016 election may have brought out 56 percent of you to the polls pulling levers, pushing buttons and filling out ballots, but for a country whose top boss claims “America First,” the stats show that when compared to the rest of world’s voting habits, it’s more like “America Last.”
But that could all change if the nation’s election officials see promising results this November in West Virginia. For the first time in America’s 241-year-old live experiment in democracy, registered voters in the Mountain State can vote in a federal election on a mobile device—thanks in large part to blockchain.
A Boston-based voting platform company called Voatz has made it possible for some of West Virginia’s out-of-state registered voters, primarily those in active-duty and in the military, to use a mobile-app to fill out their ballot in a matter of seconds, trumping the antiquated absentee-voter form of snail mail, paper and pen. And with absentee voting opening up last Friday, the results are already starting to come in.
“This is historic,“ said Nimit Sawhney, co-founder of the three-year-old company. “It’s the first form of mobile-based blockchain and biometric voting in a federal election.”
It’s been part of an ongoing pilot co-championed by West Virginia’s Secretary of State Mac Warner that started way back in the Spring of 2017, and rolled out in two counties there, earlier this spring during the primaries. A total of 13 votes were tallied, but for Warner, a former military man who spent 23 years in the U.S. Army, the results were huge.
Back in 2012 and 2014, Warner wasn’t able to cast his absentee ballot because he was serving in a remote outpost in Afghanistan away from any actual postal service or landline. After he returned to the U.S., Warner pushed for a better way, and earlier this year he launched a pilot program seeing whether a service like Voatz could fix the problem.
The pilot program is now running in 24 of the state’s 55 counties and it’s specifically targeting servicemen and women (along with all other out-of-state residents) who can have their vote counted with a few taps of a phone.
“Initially we didn’t know what the blockchain was other than a internet transaction,” says Mike Queen, Warner’s Deputy Chief of Staff. “But when we learned more about it, it appeared to be the safest transactional form from a tech standpoint so why not explore it for this specific segment of military men and women who want to vote?”
Traditionally, in West Virginia, a person who might find themselves in a similar situation like Warner’s or just simply out of country would have to contact their county clerk’s office and express interest in an absentee ballot. Upon arrival, they’d have to fill out the form and either fax it over or send it back via mail.
With Voatz, you still have to reach out to the county clerk, but this is when the magic starts: The county clerk will contact Voatz, which sends you a verification link that allows you to download the app. After passing through several authentication measures, including your smartphone’s biometric and facial recognition features, and uploading a photo of a government ID, you’re in.
Once you submit the ballot, you’ll receive a confirmation email verifying your ballot. A separate email with your anonymized ballot would be sent to your county clerk’s office ready to be tallied on Election Day.
But is it safe?
“Nothing is 100 percent safe and that’s true of paper based voting as its done right now,” Sawhney tells Decrypt. “But for innovation to take place in the election space, we need to make the process more accessible and find an easier option to vote.”
The company is using IBM’s “permissioned” HyperLedger blockchain, which the tech savvy know is not the same as the “permissionless” blockchain frameworks that have given birth to Bitcoin. The big difference is that HyperLedger operates in a slightly more centralized form, where the underlying code base may not always be open-sourced and there’s some authoritative body that lets users in or out. And that’s in large part because of the authentication process that goes into verifying each voter, it falls more in line with how elections are handled in the states—surprise, not everyone can vote in a U.S. election.
Of course, not everyone can vote via an expensive smartphone either, and in a state as economically depressed as West Virginia, if this were rolled out statewide, one could make the argument that it discriminates against the poor. But for now, this is a pilot project, aimed mainly at service people stationed abroad, the vast majority of whom have mobile phones. And the blockchain experiment is mainly intended to ensure that each vote is tamper resistant, truly independent and transparent—at least, until proven otherwise.
“That’s where the critics come in,” Queen says. “I think the most difficult part in all this is understanding that there is a system out there at least to this point that is not hackable and can provide a safe transaction where people can vote securely.”
“There is no way to guarantee that the security, privacy, and transparency requirements for elections can all be met with any practical technology in the foreseeable future,” says one critic, a board member at the Verified Voting Foundation, a nonpartisan organization working towards the accuracy, integrity and verifiability of elections in the digital age. “In the cyber security world today almost all of the advantages are with attackers, and any of these attacks can result in the wrong persons being elected, or initiatives wrongly passed or rejected.”
Sure, like, whatever, that’s like just an opinion man.
Sawhney disagrees: “That’s an argument not even worth consideration in our humble opinion. For blockchain, we haven’t even reached the 90s of the early Internet days. It’s all about baby steps.”
The next big step? The general election in 2020, if all goes well.
Since absentee voting opened up on Friday, September 22, around 7 votes have already been tallied using Voatz. Sawhney says he’s expecting the total number of votes to reach into the, well, triple digits. But Queen and the rest of the Secretary of State’s office are more keen on just seeing how secure and smooth the whole process goes.
“It’s not up to elections officials to get people out to vote, it’s our job to make sure they’re registered and eligible,” Queen says. “It’s the candidate’s responsibility to get people to want to vote.”
What remains unclear is exactly how you’ll receive your sticker reminding you and others that you voted. Though, it’s probably best to focus on one problem at a time.