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West Virginia to Extend Online Blockchain Voting Test to November

The state is the first to try the technology at such a large scale — though the number of people using the system will likely be a tiny fraction of the overall electorate.

After testing mobile phone voting powered by blockchain in its primary elections, news outlets are reporting that West Virginia has decided to extend its use of the technology to the midterm elections in November as well — on a limited basis.

The trial, which the state is undertaking with Boston-based startup Voatz, has been taking on a heap of criticism lately, running from voting rights advocates to security researchers to the popular Web comic XKCD.

West Virginia already tested out the system in two counties during its primary elections in May, and Secretary of State Mac Warner told CNN the state had no problems with it.

The state is only offering the system to overseas voters and deployed military service members — in other words, those voters covered under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

Since the scope is so narrow, it’s unlikely the system will see heavy use in November. Moreover, CNN reported that the state is leaving it up to individual counties to decide whether they want to try the system out.

Mobile, remote voting has the potential to make voting easier and therefore increase participation in elections. But the test comes at a time when many — most, perhaps — are loudly calling for the U.S. to move in the opposite direction; back to paper. Federal investigations have documented foreign attacks on U.S. voting systems in recent years, and physical documents fundamentally offer some advantages that digital, Internet-connected systems do not.

For one thing, they offer voters tactile proof of their vote. One can physically hand their ballot to a poll worker and receive verbal confirmation that it will be counted. Paper also offers a backup record for recounts and disputes.

Paper also can’t be changed remotely.

Blockchain has its own approaches to those concerns, including the ability for voters to verify their vote by looking up a “hash” that corresponds to their vote on the blockchain and a record that will show whether a third party has attempted to meddle with the results.

But inherently, anything that connects to the Internet can be remotely accessed. That’s where a lot of concern with online voting lies — the potential, no matter what mitigating factors a system might bring to the table, for adversaries to attempt to change votes at scale.

Voatz has tested its technology in several other settings, including student government elections and state party conventions. The company received more than $2 million in investment funding at the beginning of the year.

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.