Last week, control of a state legislative house was determined by drawing a name out of a bowl.
Last month, the losing candidate for a U.S. Senate seat refused to concede, speculating that voter fraud had played a role in the outcome of the election.
Last presidential election, the nation nervously watched as stories poured in about the possibility of hacking voting machines.
What do all these things have in common?
Nimit Sawhney thinks he can address them. And now the chief executive officer of the blockchain-based voting startup Voatz has $2.2 million to test that idea.
So far, Voatz has been testing its mobile phone-based system in events like student government elections, union voting and sub-national political party events. The seed round it just closed will allow it to expand that a bit further, trying its platform in different places and with different circumstances.
For example, the company is starting to dabble in New England’s open town meetings, where citizens get together once or twice a year to vote directly on issues.
“Typically, if you look at town meetings, 200 people show up and end up deciding for thousands of people,” Sawhney said. “So our goal is for our platform to make it easier for people to vote showing up in person, and then with the state legislature (approval), eventually allowing remote voting as well.”
The company’s voting system, designed to work with existing election infrastructure, runs on the blockchain. That means that it relies on third-party “validating peers” to prove using the power of computing that a transaction took place. The technology is most famously used to support cryptocurrency systems like Bitcoin, but it can support many kinds of data — property ownership documents, votes, supply chains, etc.
The technology has generated an unbelievable amount of hype. And not everyone is ecstatic about the prospect of using it with voting; some cryptocurrency and voting experts have deemed it needlessly complex and potentially vulnerable to tampering.
Nonetheless, political parties and international governments are beginning to test out the idea. It could, after all, provide some huge benefits to democracy: Online and remote voting, audit trails that might eliminate the need for recounts and greater confidence in the accuracy of votes among them.
“We’re excited to support Voatz in its bold mission to dramatically increase voting access and security,” said Julie Lein, managing partner of the seed round participant Urban Innovation Fund. “Voatz tackles two of the core challenges in voting — low participation in local elections and the need for better citizen engagement.”
There’s also the issue of clarity: Think about the ballot that led to a tie in the Virginia House of Delegates race where the winner was chosen out of a bowl. It was originally not counted because the voter made confusing marks on a paper ballot.
Software on a cellphone screen would, presumably, not give voters any opportunity to create such ambiguity.
“I would think (that ballot) would serve as a reminder that the current system needs to be updated, needs to be enhanced,” Sawhney said.
With the extra $2.2 million, Voatz plans on hiring business development staff and putting more work into new functionality such as its voter registration platform. The company is also planning on expanding the number of users who can sign up.
The round, which represents Voatz’ total fundraising amount to date, was led by Overstock.com’s investment arm, Medici Ventures. The Urban Innovation Fund, Oakhouse Partners and several angel investors also participated in the round.
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.