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Voting by smartphone in Seattle area pushes the limits of electronic balloting

Election officials are letting voters in a little-known race cast ballots with their mobile phones, even as critics raise concerns over the vulnerability of digital ballots

Election officials are giving the residents of King County, which includes Seattle, the opportunity to vote with their smartphones in a little-known race that ends Tuesday. (David Ryder for The Washington Post)

SEATTLE — As it became clear that a technical mishap would delay results from the Iowa caucuses last week, Sheila Nix raced to prepare a chart illustrating how the glitch was isolated.

Nix is president of Tusk Philanthropies, an organization that’s working to boost turnout through mobile-voting projects and was not involved in the Iowa caucuses. But she has been working on a Seattle-area election that culminates Tuesday to elect a seat on the board of the King Conservation District, which promotes sustainable uses of natural resources. It is one of Tusk’s most high-profile efforts. Nix didn’t want the Iowa debacle to discourage potential voters from using their mobile phones to cast their ballots.

The chart Nix’s team created, posted on the King Conservation District’s website, noted that the technology used in Iowa, unlike Tusk’s partners, was “untested, and created in secrecy,” and that Iowa didn’t have a backup plan in the event there was a problem. But she said she also recognizes that the fiasco in Iowa was a setback for everyone working on digital elections.

“We know we have an additional level of education that must be done,” Nix said.

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The failure last week of an app meant to help tally the results of Iowa’s caucuses, leading to days of partial and unreliable results, prompted concerns. On Sunday, the Iowa Democratic Party could not confirm final results but said Pete Buttigieg would probably receive 14 delegates to the national presidential nominating convention, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would receive 12.

Despite the mess in Iowa, mobile voting has its supporters. Earlier this month, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) signed a bill that would allow people with physical disabilities to use mobile-voting technology. Last October, Utah County, which includes the city of Provo, Utah, extended a mobile-voting pilot program for general elections to include residents with disabilities as well as military and overseas voters.

Mobile-voting proponents say the technology will boost election participation by making balloting available anywhere voters have phones.

It could be helpful for boosting turnout in small elections, like the one in the Seattle area, Nix said. Moreover, it could help with the current primary system, which often appeals to voters on the political extremes because they tend to be the most engaged in the process.

“We want more people to vote so we reduce the polarization,” Nix said.

The King Conservation District election is offering technology to any registered voter who wishes to cast their ballot from a mobile device or a computer. Voters can log in to a portal and vote. Their selections are then recorded in a PDF file, which election officials say will be printed to create a paper trail.

In addition to making mobile ballots available to all voters, Seattle-based Democracy Live, which is providing the voting technology, is instituting a digital signature feature for mobile devices in which voters use their fingers to sign, similar to ones used by mobile payment systems such as Square. That way, election officials can compare their signatures with the ones kept on file for each registered voter.

But mobile voting is prone to cybersecurity breaches just as other forms of election technology are, said Andrew Appel, a computer science professor at Princeton University who studies digital election security. Determined hackers can access voters‘ phones, Appel said, citing the recent infiltration of the phone of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. From there, they can send bogus ballots.

“That’s an easy hack to implement once you get into people’s phone,” Appel said.

He said he also worries about hackers breaking into the systems that collect the ballots produced by mobile phones and altering them before they are counted. “The vulnerabilities at the election sites are just as deadly,” Appel said.

Similar concerns about unreliable results also dog touch-screen voting machines, as well as other types of paperless balloting. Even so, paperless machines are set to be used in parts of at least a half-dozen states in 2020, in addition to the handful of districts testing mobile-balloting options.

Concerns over digital voting systems have intensified since the Department of Homeland Security contacted election officials in 21 states after the 2016 presidential election to notify them that they had been targeted by Russian government hackers during the campaign. At the time, DHS officials said people connected to the Russian government had tried to hack voter registration files or public election sites.

New digital voting efforts exacerbate the concerns of those already nervous about the susceptibility of election systems. But those concerns haven’t deterred Bradley Tusk, an investor in the Uber ride-sharing service, who is using his fortune to boost mobile voting. Tusk, who also managed presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg’s reelection campaign for New York mayor, worked as the communications director for Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and served as the deputy governor of Illinois, said he believes mobile voting could immensely increase participation in electoral politics and is funding pilots, like the one here, to test the technology.

Tusk, whose Uber haul was estimated at $100 million in 2018 by the Wall Street Journal, has also worked with mobile-voting app maker Voatz on elections in West Virginia and Oregon; and Nix expects to announce another election that plans to use the mobile-voting technology in coming weeks, she said.

The next test for mobile voting is the election here this week. The race is for a seat on the board of a little-known district that has historically drawn scant electoral interest. In an election for a board seat last year, about 3,200 residents cast ballots in a district that has more than 1.2 million registered voters.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the King County Elections office, which is managing the election and printing out ballots, said 3,450 votes had been cast, including 3,279 ballots that voters submitted electronically.

To participate in last year’s election, voters had to request a ballot be sent to their homes. That is, if they even knew there was an election. The King Conservation District has no taxation or legislative authority and is made up of an all-volunteer board of supervisors.

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“The problem with this election is that it’s really word-of-mouth,” said Julie Wise, the King County director of elections.

That scant turnout led the board, which manages its own elections under Washington state law, to reach out to Wise to brainstorm ways to improve the process. King County had used digital voting technology for overseas military and disabled voters, and Wise suggested considering that technology for the King Conservation District board election.

Chris Porter, a beekeeper and pharmaceutical sales representative, who is running for the board seat against Stephen “Dutch” Deutschman, said he has no misgivings about the technology. Requiring voters to request ballots reduces the potential turnout, Porter said.

“This is a huge step in the right direction. It’s easier to engage voters, much easier,” said Porter, who ran for a board seat last year and lost.

Deutschman noted that he has had to help some older voters complete the voting process and use the digital signing technology. He’s opposed to the mobile-voting system in this election, he said, and worries technical glitches could lead to uncounted votes.

But the obscurity of the race makes it a perfect testing ground for mobile voting, unlike the Iowa caucuses, said Bryan Finney, founder and president of Democracy Live, the Seattle start-up that developed the app. The King Conservation District election isn’t one that’s a likely target for hackers, and it’s small enough that anomalies can be easily spotted.

“You want to go off-Broadway before you go on Broadway,” Finney said.

But the absence of any breaches is no guarantee that the system is secure, Princeton University’s Appel said.

Democracy Live’s technology has been used without issue in roughly 1,000 elections since 2010, Finney said. Voters visit an election website, which runs on data centers run by Amazon Web Services that use the same security certifications as federal agencies using the technology. After making their selections, voters save their ballots as a PDF file and digitally sign it. Or they can print it and physically sign it. In the past, voters have had to mail in that ballot, though overseas military could often send it as an email attachment.

Until the King Conservation District campaign, the company’s technology had been used to help U.S. service members, overseas residents and the disabled — constituents who face hurdles using paper ballots or returning them promptly — cast ballots electronically.

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That’s not good enough, though, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said. Even though her office doesn’t have jurisdiction over this race, she said she worries that the snag in Iowa has eroded the confidence of an already skeptical public in regard to the use of technology in elections.

“Once people stop believing the results, they don’t believe the people elected are legitimate,” Wyman said.

To her, it’s irrelevant that this race is obscure. Every vote counts, regardless of the importance of the election, Wyman said, adding that her office will be watching the election closely.

“I would like to see us push pause this year,” Wyman said.

Nix, though, said she intends to push forward. Democracy Live’s technology has undergone independent security reviews, and Finney noted that the company’s system has never been breached.

“Our best argument to people who say it can’t be done is just to do it, and do it securely,” Nix said.