In Mac Warner’s 23 years in the U.S. Army, he experienced firsthand the hurdles of voting from abroad. “On a hillside in Afghanistan, it’s hard to get mail, it’s hard to ship it out,” he says.
As West Virginia’s secretary of state, Warner wants to help deployed service members to more easily cast a ballot—only 20 percent of the state’s overseas military personnel voted in 2016. He also wants to bolster election security.
In the state’s primary in May, Warner got his wish. A pilot program enabling voting via a blockchain network allowed his son Scott—an Army first lieutenant in Vicenza, Italy—to cast a ballot with his smartphone. “In the same amount of time that I could’ve pulled up and watched a YouTube video,” Scott Warner says, “I actually got to go perform my civic duty.”
West Virginia is testing the new method, which uses blockchain technology to store and secure digital votes, at a time of heightened concern about election meddling. U.S. intelligence officials warn that Russia could interfere in the congressional midterms on Nov. 6, and on July 31, Facebook Inc. said it’s investigating interference on its social media platforms, similar to that seen during the 2016 presidential election. At a conference of election officials in July, cybersecurity dominated the discussions. The West Virginia experiment could help determine whether blockchain, widely used in cryptocurrency, has a place in election security. But computer scientists say mobile voting is risky.
The pilot program was funded with a $150,000 grant from Tusk/Montgomery Philanthropies Inc., a foundation set up by venture capitalist and former Uber Technologies Inc. adviser Bradley Tusk. When he heard about Warner’s interest, he asked one of his teams to research mobile voting startups. For the pilot, they picked Boston-based Voatz Inc.
Tusk’s broader aim is to expand voter participation in the U.S. by enabling more mobile voting. (He served as campaign manager in 2009 for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek.) “I have a 12-year-old and 9-year-old, and they would find it insane that you couldn’t vote on a phone,” Tusk says. He wants to test mobile voting with groups such as the military, then find officials “who are willing to try something different,” he says, to make the practice mainstream.
Warner and his state elections director, Donald Kersey, worked with Voatz to make the app, which uses facial recognition software to confirm voters’ identities, compliant with West Virginia’s laws. Votes were stored on the blockchain, inside what Voatz executives call a “digital lockbox” on the cloud. On primary day, county clerks used biometric authentication devices to unlock and collect the votes.
Two counties, Harrison and Monongalia, ran the pilot in the May 8 primary. Because it’s so new, only a handful of voters abroad used the app, according to Kersey. The blockchain technology distributes and stores the votes in 16 locations, including the cloud, using various providers. A hacker would have to get into all 16 locations to access any of the votes, according to Kersey.
Harrison County Clerk Susan Thomas says that because she couldn’t transfer the app votes into her tabulator, she had to re-create the ballots before counting them. “There’s a lot that needs to be tweaked,” she says.
Skeptics say blockchain voting won’t improve security. It’s “mostly hype,” says J. Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan computer science professor known for hacking into voting machines. He says there are still core security problems with mobile voting that blockchain doesn’t solve, such as preserving anonymity and transferring votes from smartphones infected with malware. It’s “worthy of research and study—but it may be decades until we get there,” Halderman says.
These mobile systems also lack a paper backup, making it hard to audit vote counts, according to Audrey Malagon, a mathematics professor working with the advocacy group Verified Voting Foundation. “I hope they recognize that this isn’t ready for widespread use,” she says. Some West Virginia counties use only paper ballots; others have voting machines that produce a receipt so voters can confirm their selections.
Since May, Voatz’s app has withstood audits from five security companies, say Kersey and Tusk. The blockchain technology also underwent an external review in early August; results have not yet been released. West Virginia will make mobile voting available to overseas voters from all 55 counties for the November election, despite criticisms.
Tusk is contributing about $400,000 for that effort and talking to other states about piloting the program. He says he hopes the government will eventually sign on: “I can’t pay for this everywhere.”