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Denver Offers Blockchain Voting to Military, Overseas Voters

The city will use the Voatz app, which West Virginia also offered to military and overseas voters in the 2018 midterm elections. The concept of mobile phone-based voting is controversial, but gaining steam.

(TNS) — The city of Denver will allow thousands of voters to cast their ballots with a smartphone application this year.

The pilot program is one of the first U.S. deployments of a phone-based voting system for public elections — but it will only be available to military members and voters living in other countries. The city has invited all of its international voters — about 4,000 people — to use the app in the May 2019 election.

The idea of digital voting has been met with skepticism from some elections security experts, but Denver officials say it could make life easier for a limited set of voters.

“This pilot enables us to offer that convenience for our military and overseas citizens who have the most difficult time voting and participating in the democratic process here at home,” said Deputy Elections Director Jocelyn Bucaro.

Solving Two Problems?

The system could solve two problems for Denver Elections.

First, it replaces older technology that’s already in use. Under federal law, governments must provide a digital voting option to overseas voters. Denver has for several years offered a website that voters can use to mark ballots. It produces a PDF that is sent through a web service or over email.

“It generally gets sent via email, which is not the most secure method,” Bucaro said. Elections technology expert Maurice Turner agreed, saying that email and other earlier technologies are “very scary words” to security professionals.

Digital voting also could help the city meet tight deadlines. Denver’s elections usually involve a second round of voting — the runoff election — about a month after Election Day. That’s not much time to count votes, print ballots and mail them abroad.

Security Threats

West Virginia voters used the app in a similar pilot test for the 2018 elections, with about 144 voters participating.

The idea was met with some enthusiasm, but it still faced concerns about security. It’s widely accepted that voting on paper is more secure than digital voting, since paper records are easier to audit and harder to change. Denver’s main voting systems rely on paper ballots.

Denver’s pilot will use Voatz, the same Boston-based company as the West Virginia test. Voatz uses phones’ biometric features, such as face identification and fingerprints. Users have to upload a 10-second video of themselves and a picture of their photo ID to register.

After they’re submitted, votes are stored with blockchain technology, according to Voatz. In other words, they’re distributed across multiple servers in a way that is supposedly unchangeable. It’s the same idea behind Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency.

But blockchain also comes with another threat: If attackers ever break the encryption on Voatz’s voting files, they could reveal how people voted, according to Maurice Turner, senior technologist for the Center for Democracy & Technology. It could take years or decades, but sooner or later it will happen, he said.

“In America, we strongly value the secrecy of the ballot, and that’s something that cannot be guaranteed with the current technology,” Turner said.

Voatz says it has taken steps to minimize the risk. The company keeps its blockchain ledgers on private servers rather than distributing them publicly, as cryptocurrencies do, Turner said. In other words, attackers may not have a copy of the encrypted files to hack.

Accessible Voting

Amber McReynolds, Denver’s former elections director, said that no technology is completely secure. But mobile voting could be worthwhile as a limited option for some voters, according to McReynolds, who helped launch the Voatz pilot in Denver.

“The reality is, not every voter can vote on a paper ballot without assistance,” said McReynolds, now the executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute. Blind people, for example, may need help filling out a paper ballot. “Given that reality, we have to continue to look for ways to provide voters that need it with options that are secure.”

The Voatz pilot is free to the city. It’s funded by Tusk Philanthropies, with help from the National Cybersecurity Center.

“If the pilot is successful, we’re hoping other cities in Colorado that fall under home-rule might consider using it in some of their local elections,” Bucaro said.

Turner, the technology expert, said it’s worthwhile for cities to experiment with Voatz and other applications.

“At least for the (overseas and military) voters, their options weren’t particularly secure to begin with,” he said. The outcomes of experiments like this will help officials respond to the inevitable demands for digital voting, he said.

So far, about 80 people have signed up for the pilot.

©2019 The Denver Post. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.