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West Virginia Becomes First State to Test Mobile Voting by Blockchain in a Federal Election

The state is performing a pilot test for military service members who can't vote in person.

West Virginia has become the first state to allow Internet voting by blockchain, offering the technology to deployed and overseas military service members and their families in two counties.

The pilot test is in place for the state’s May 8 primary elections and is very limited in scope — West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner said maybe a couple dozen voters will participate. But if it goes well, the state wants to try allowing all eligible military voters statewide to use it during the November general elections.

“I’m really not concerned about numbers,” Warner said. “We’re really just looking at the technology.”

West Virginia is using Voatz, a Boston startup that recently raised $2.2 million in venture capital funding, for the pilot.

It’s by far the most high-profile use of the technology in the U.S. so far. There have been several elections in the country run on blockchain, but they’ve been for much smaller events like town meetings, student government elections and state political party conventions.

Should online voting ever reach the mainstream, many believe it would boost turnout and make elections more representative.

Voatz’ technology works by recording votes on a blockchain, a cryptographic concept popularized with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. A voter’s identity is verified using biometric tools like a thumbprint scan, then they vote using a mobile device. Their vote is recorded on a “chain” containing all the votes cast, where each vote is mathematically “proven” by a third-party participant.

That means several things, from a voter perspective:

  • They can verify that their vote was recorded by looking at the blockchain.
  • They can vote from anywhere in the world, provided they have an Internet connection.
  • There’s no reason for an election official to miscount or misunderstand their vote.
Carye Blaney, the Monongalia County clerk whose office will be one of two involved in the pilot process, sees several reasons to use the technology. Military members get deployed all across the world and often can’t vote in person, and the process can be difficult.

“If the military or their family or other Americans working overseas are in an area [where] they may or may not have access to any kind of computer technology [or] scanner, they may not have access to regular postal service,” Blaney said. “And from a jurisdictional perspective, we can’t help them get that ballot back to us.”

It also takes a long time for ballots to get back from overseas.

“I’ve had voters who have overnighted to our jurisdiction and paid over $50 to do so, and it still didn’t get back to us by voting day,” she said.

Call it a cruel irony.

“We want to make sure that everyone fighting for our freedoms, for our democratic way of life, has an opportunity to participate in that democratic process,” Warner said.

Warner knows the process well — he is a military veteran and his children have all served as well. In fact, his son was the first to use the Voatz app to vote.

His verdict: “Pretty slick!”

That is, he was able to use it to vote quickly. He did it between airborne jumps. That speed is important, the secretary of state said.

“If you’re fortunate enough to think about a vote back home, you want to do it right then,” Warner said.

One more advantage of the system is that it gives deployed military voters privacy they wouldn’t otherwise have.

“It protects the anonymity of the voter,” Blaney said. “Normally when a military person submits an absentee ballot, they have to sign a waiver that they recognize that they’re giving up their right to a secret ballot because they have to send it back to us by email or fax.”

There’s considerable skepticism, including from renowned elections and cryptography experts, about whether blockchain is the right technology to accomplish online voting — or whether online voting is the right way to go at all. With concerns swirling about foreign interference in America’s elections, many are calling on a return to paper ballots that can’t be manipulated en masse.

Some see blockchain as unnecessarily complicated and possibly open to abuse. The building of the blockchain relies on third parties, who essentially compete against each other by using computer processing power. If one person gains a majority of processing power, they are in control of what gets recorded, which means that theoretically they could put down the result they want instead of the actual result.

Nimit Sawhney, chief executive officer of Voatz, said that such manipulation would be easy to spot since the blockchain is publicly accessible. Any person who did such a thing would be kicked out of the pool of people allowed to validate votes.

Warner isn’t concerned either.

“To date I’m not aware of anybody who’s been able to hack blockchain,” he said.

From a state perspective, the ability to do instant audits of the voting record is also important. In fact, manual counting of paper ballots became an issue just next door to West Virginia last year. In Virginia’s November elections, one state legislative seat race came down to a single vote where the intent of the voter wasn’t entirely clear because the voter drew lines through some of their choices. That ballot was the difference between a Democrat winning the seat and a tied race. When the ballot was accepted, the state had to break the tie by drawing names out of a bowl — and the Republican candidate was chosen.

The expenses of the pilot are being covered by venture capitalist and philanthropist Bradley Tusk.

Whether the state continues the pilot past the primary elections will rest largely on the feedback from the voters and officials with the two participating counties. Right now, Warner said, there are no plans to expand it to the general voting population.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be even larger uses of the technology.

“I think others will follow our example,” Warner said. 

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business 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.