Eligible voters will be able to cast their ballots through a mobile application that uses blockchain technology, which stores data on a decentralized database, meaning there’s no owner, allowing for more transparent transactions. Information is stored publicly, but to ensure privacy, West Virginia voters' personal information will remain anonymous.
Most U.S. citizens vote in person or using mail-in ballots. Overseas service members and their families traditionally cast absentee ballots that are printed out or mailed to them, and these usually have to reach election offices by Election Day.
“The hardships that our overseas servicemen and women have in voting and returning a ballot are much greater than those that we see in the state,” said West Virginia elections director Donald Kersey.
Tusk Montgomery Philanthropies, which is part of venture capital fund Tusk Ventures, sponsored West Virginia’s partnership with technology firm Voatz. Voatz and the state worked to pilot a mobile voting app in May for deployed voters in two of the state’s counties, Harrison and Monongalia. The same mobile platform will be offered to eligible voters across 55 counties in the fall.
West Virginia officials have acknowledged that absentee ballots are not as dependable as in-person voting. Voters have raised concerns about anonymity and how timely their ballots are received, according to the West Virginia secretary of state. In 2016, about 19,000 absentee ballots by overseas military voters or their families were rejected, with nearly half not reaching the elections office in time, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
West Virginia is offering blockchain ballots only to overseas military members, and state officials remain wary of advocating the technology for in-state voters or other state elections. “This is a solution to West Virginia’s problems [with overseas voters] specifically. We didn’t have the money to build a new system or buy a new one that’s already created,” Kersey said. “I don’t know if blockchain is the answer. It was just the answer we found here.”
While the mobile voting may help with ballot accessibility and convenience, there have been concerns about its security. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has researched ways to improve overseas military voting with electronic technologies since 2008. Multiple studies by federal researchers have found that “Internet voting systems cannot currently be audited with a comparable level of confidence” to physical polling places, according to the institute’s site. Researchers cited the potential for malware on personal devices and concerns of voter authentication.
“There are many security issues in voting, and blockchain only addresses one of them. It just solves the problem of how do you make it an indelible record of the ballots after they’ve been cast by the voters,” said David Dill, a professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford University and founder of the nonprofit Verified Voting. Dill did not take part in the NIST research. “[Blockchain] doesn’t deal with authenticating the voters before the election ... or the security problems on the voters' devices.”
Voatz released information on Monday about the security audit, what it covered and which independent third parties performed the audit. The firm did not release any official documents from the four organizations that conducted it, but it wrote that it will continue to test the product.
“Security is not a destination but an ongoing exercise due to the ever evolving nature of the threats, especially when it relates to our electoral infrastructure,” according to Voatz’s site.
Various people in the technology industry have openly criticized the pilot, including the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Joseph Lorenzo Hall and software engineer Buzz Andersen. These types of voting experiments are discouraged by many computer scientists, Dill said. More than 30 leading computer scientists have signed onto Verified Voting’s statement acknowledging the risks of Internet voting since 2008.
With the West Virginia program, votes are recorded from the app onto a permissioned blockchain, which maintains users’ anonymity and tracks incoming votes, said Voatz co-founder Nimit Sawhney. Anyone can view the blockchain, but only permissioned users can interact with it, unlike public blockchains such as bitcoin and Ethereum. The votes are then recorded on a distributed ledger, a virtual database where stored information is decentralized. Sawhney said that the decentralized nature of the blockchain, which Kersey calls a “digital lockbox,” ensures the security of the system, since it makes it more difficult for votes to be tampered with.
While state officials have affirmed that the technology is secure, blockchain-based voting has never been done at a state level, and it was crucial that the pilot be tested with a small group of people, Kersey said. “We wanted to make sure that what we were doing was a calculated risk and not irresponsible of us as elections administrators,” he said.
The pilot results were satisfactory, and there were no critical issues identified, according to the audit. Voatz said it will incorporate suggestions from the county clerks and auditors into its future projects. Harrison County Clerk Susan Thomas said her office had to re-create paper copies of the blockchain ballots to scan into the vote tabulators during the pilot earlier this year, since the votes were not automatically recorded into the elections recording system.
“We had to print the paper out with the voter’s vote and re-create the ballot,” she said, calling the pilot a success otherwise. Sawhney said that the issue will be resolved by November, but what Thomas cited is something Dill’s foundation remains wary of.
West Virginia is not the first place to use blockchain technology in its elections. Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa, used blockchain in its March election, Tech Crunch reported. The Swiss city of Zug also held a trial municipal blockchain vote in June, according to a Swiss news site.