Ready or Not, Blockchain-Based Mobile Voting Is Getting Closer

A voter in August 2017 casts his vote in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.

A voter in August 2017 casts his vote in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. AP Photo

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Some voters in Provo and other Utah County cities will be able to cast ballots on a blockchain-powered mobile app in a pilot program for the August election.

This election season, the option to vote remotely via blockchain is coming to overseas voters from nine new U.S. cities. West Virginia became the first state to pilot the technology last year, with Denver following in May as the first city. In this August’s local elections, far-flung voters from Utah County, home to the city of Provo, will be able to log their votes on a mobile application, too.

At its core, the technology is meant to make voting easier and increase primary turnout, which is historically lower than that of general elections. About 20 percent of registered voters cast ballots in midterm House of Representatives races last year—a huge leap from 2014’s turnout rate of 13.7 percent.

“Given that the average primary turnout is 12 to 15 percent, 12 to 15 percent of people dictate most of our policies on the left or the right,” said Bradley Tusk, the startup-consultant-turned-philanthropist who is supporting the pilots, which are administered by the Boston-based technology company Voatz. “How do you get turnout to 60 or 70 percent?”

In his work in 2011 as an early-stage Uber consultant, Tusk thinks he found one answer: Let people vote on their phones. When Uber wanted cities to legalize ridehailing, the company asked riders and drivers to indicate their support via texts and online petitions. They did, in vast numbers, and the rest is history.

“If you want to change the outputs, you’ve got to change the inputs,” Tusk said. “Everybody has technology in their pocket.” Tusk Philanthropies—funded in part by the equity Tusk was given by Uber as payment for that consulting work—has covered the costs of administering and auditing each Voatz election so far.

When Utah County, population 60,000, presented its proposal to the state to be the next Voatz site, Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox said he was intrigued. With its significant population of internationally based military officers and missionaries who vote absentee, Utah has long been interested in online voting, but hadn’t cracked the key to doing it securely.

“You have to guarantee a private vote, and people have to be able to vote anonymously and that, by definition, makes it impossible to audit,” said Cox. “It’s not that someone actually has to hack an election. They just have to claim they did, and if you can’t claim otherwise, you’ve undermined the foundation of our democratic republic.”

Blockchain could unlock that potential by serving as an online database of transactions—in this case, votes—that are stored securely online. By logging the votes multiple times on multiple machines across what’s called a “distributed ledger,” election officials are able to verify that the votes haven’t been altered without having to tie the vote back to the voter.

“The purpose of doing this trial is to have a small, controlled group that we can monitor very closely, so we can ensure the integrity of the election,” said Cox. “We think we’ll see a significant increase in returned ballots.” In Utah County, 84 voters are eligible to vote overseas county-wide, and 53 of them are in jurisdictions with municipal elections this August. They’ll vote in local races in the cities of Eagle Mountain, Highland, Lehi, Mapleton, Orem, Pleasant Grove, Santaquin, and Springville, as well as for two city council seats in Provo.

Upon its launch last year, this experiment in digital democracy was received with a healthy dose of skepticism from cybersecurity experts and blockchain detractors. In The New Yorker, Sue Halpern summed up the spectrum of reactions to Tusk’s moonshot: It’s “either visionary or preposterous.” Voatz was ridiculed as “the Theranos of voting.”

Mobile voting isn’t without precedent. In Moscow, Estonia, and the Japanese city of Tsukuba, citizens can vote online for certain policies and municipal projects. And early results from West Virginia and Denver’s pilots seem to indicate that American voters have been impressed with the process. After a small trial run of 13 voters, West Virginia expanded mobile voting for its November 2018 general election, during which 144 voters deployed in 30 countries cast their ballots through Voatz.

In Denver, more than 100 voters opted in. According to a post-election survey administered by the Denver Elections Division, 100 percent of respondents who used Voatz preferred the mobile method over faxed, emailed, or snail-mailed ballots. When asked to rank how secure they felt their submissions were, the average rating was close to a nine. Most striking was the change in turnout among overseas voters: Since Denver’s 2015 election, it had doubled.

If expanding access and convenience are the primary goals, there’s evidence that Voatz delivers. But the concerns over security remain. Joseph Lorenzo Hall, a chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, criticized the project when it launched in West Virginia, telling CNN that logging ballots through voters’ “horribly secured” personal devices and networks makes the app a hackers’ dream. (In a statement, Voatz said it installs technology that detects and rejects corrupted phones.) Hall’s assessment hasn’t changed since.

“[T]his is an unfortunate distraction in election cybersecurity when we should be spending time on much more mundane but serious issues,” Hall told CityLab in an email. “Blockchain voting from Tusk or Voatz will do nothing to address the very real threats the 2020 election cycle faces … and I fear that it can only introduce more sources of vulnerabilities that only apply to some of the hardest-to-serve voters that are overseas.”

David Dill, a computer science professor emeritus at Stanford University, doesn’t think building a truly secure online voting network is impossible—but it would be unprecedented. “What they’re up against is basically 20 years of all of the top computer scientists in the country—and in some other countries—saying that the technology does not exist to solve this problem,” he said.

While Hall point to the threat of third-party interference, Dill raises another issue: trusting a private company to administer an election. “How do you know that your vote wasn’t reported to somebody else or to the company before your name was removed from it?” he said. The problem is “making sure the ballot doesn’t get changed … in between the voter’s fingers and when it gets counted.”

Tusk emphasizes that voters can personally audit their votes by making sure the ballot they cast matches the one on a printed digital receipt coded with a unique, anonymous voter ID. Four independent security audits were conducted during the West Virginia and Denver pilots, and no interference or corruption was detected. “Compared to the way we currently vote, this approach is exponentially safer,” Tusk Philanthropies said in a statement.

To verify the voter’s identities, the app gathers fingerprint and face scans; the latter images are then run through facial recognition software and cross-referenced with a picture of the voter’s driver’s license. This facial recognition dimension opens up its own can of worms: The technology has been banned in three cities and awaits judgement in many others. Civil rights advocates have criticized its potential to introduce policing biases and endanger immigrant communities.

So far, each jurisdiction has opted into facial recognition as the default verification method, but Tusk says others could easily ask to rely solely on fingerprint recognition or another biometric solution instead.

And he insists that efforts to delegitimize the concept of mobile voting obscure the broader goal of making democracy work for everyone. “When they suppress black voters in the South, they don’t say it’s because they don’t want people who are black to vote,” he said. “They say, ‘Elections aren’t secure.’”

After Utah County, Tusk hopes to partner with five or six more jurisdictions in time for the 2020 primaries and expanding the base of eligible voters, depending on local needs. One pool of potential new users: voters who are visually impaired. Or voters in rural areas who must travel long distances to the nearest polling location—an issue of growing concern in rural parts of states like Georgia, which has been consolidating and closing voting precincts in predominantly African American counties.

The idea, he says, is not necessarily to deploy Voatz nationwide, but to help ignite a digital-voting movement that boosts political participation. “I’m doing this because … I don’t see how democracy in the country survives if we fundamentally can’t resolve any difficult issue,” he said. “There’s just not the popular will to resolve any of it, because the popular will doesn’t manifest in primaries, which is where it really matters.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.