Is Voatz system of blockchain and biometrics the holy grail of secure online voting?

Profile picture for user Jerry.bowles By Jerry Bowles January 22, 2018
Summary:
Tech entrepreneurs eye secure online voting. Voatz thinks a combination of blockchain and biometrics provides a safe and secure answer.

voting-ballot

Voting lies at the heart of the democratic process. Whether elections are national, state, local, corporate, union, university or other, the notion that every vote matters is a key driver behind engagement and participation. Despite this general understanding, most Americans are not good at actually showing up at the polls and voting. The U.S. ranks 31 in participation out of 35 countries measured by the Pew Foundation.

In the 2014 mid-term elections, fewer than one-third of eligible voters cast ballots.  Says Julie Lein, managing partner of the Urban Innovation Fund, a Voatz investor:

Voatz tackles two of the core challenges in voting — low participation in local elections and the need for better citizen engagement. Its mobile-first solution is poised to be a category leader.

Few people disagree that the traditional method of casting ballots in government elections is an anachronism. Getting up early, trotting to a designated polling place, standing in line with fellow voters to have a volunteer—almost always a senior citizen—check to make sure you’re registered, and then going into a curtained voting booth with a pull handle machine that’s been in use since the late 19th century is hardly inspiring.  To be fair, this is my experience of voting in New York; some states have updated their machines.

The Voatz platform is designed to let citizens cast their ballots using a smartphone or tablet connected to the internet. it uses blockchain accounting to ensure accurate record keeping and auditing, and the biometric sensors that are common on most mobile devices. i.e. fingerprint and facial recognition, to ensure that voters are reliably authenticated. Co-founder and CEO Nimit Sawhney says:

Past attempts at internet based voting have failed or not gone mainstream due to fundamental concerns around security, auditability and voter anonymity. With Voatz, using biometrics for security and the Blockchain for irrefutability, we are able to tackle all these challenges and significantly streamline the process of voting and identity verification.

The Voatz platform, which is currently in beta release, runs on a public permissioned blockchain built on the HyperLedger framework and doesn’t use any form of cryptocurrency.  Unlike current voting systems, Sawhney says, Voatz can ensure tamper-proof record keeping, identity verification and proper auditing by incorporating a secure, immutable blockchain, providing virtual certainty of the accuracy of their internet-based voting results. a number of countries and company boards are already testing out various blockchain-based voting solutions.

Strong seed round funding

On January 8, 2018, Voatz announced that it has raised over $2.2 million in seed round funding led by Medici Ventures, a firm launched by Overstock.com in 2014 to invest in blockchain technologies, with participation from the Urban Innovation Fund and Oakhouse Partners. Other notable investors in the round include Walt Winshall, Michael Dornbrook, Joe Caruso and members of the Walnut Ventures angels group.

The Voatz team previously raised nearly $600,000 in pre-seed funding. It also won $100,000+ in non-equity cash awards through startup competitions and hackathons

The company plans to use the capital to build out its business development team, expand its reach across the United States and accelerate the development of several new product features.

The “social good” aspect of the Voatz is that it has the potential to improve voter accessibility for underrepresented citizens who often lack proper forms of voter ID. Examples include the poor, disabled or the elderly, and those who live in remote areas with limited access to proper infrastructure services.  Voatz has started testing its secured tablet ballot stations in hospitals and elder-care centers.

Voatz technology has been incorporated in pilot programs by more than 70,000 voters in elections and voting-related events in multiple jurisdictions. State political parties, leading universities, labor unions and nonprofits have successfully used the Voatz platform. Voatz is also in the process of deploying its technology for town-meeting voting in Massachusetts.

Voatz is based in Boston and has an eight-person team. The startup is a graduate of the Techstars Boston 2017 and MassChallenge Boston 2017 programs.

My take

To quote the immortal Sade: “It’s about faith.  It’s about trust.”

When it comes to public elections, Voatz (and any other online voting company) faces an uphill battle in being widely accepted by the public at large as a safe, reliable, and immutable method of voting. This is especially important at a time when public trust in both politics and tech are very low.

At this stage, neither blockchain or biometric identification are widely understood by the general public.  So winning converts looks like a long, hard slog. Voatz is wise to point out that the traditional methods of voting will still be available.

There is also the major political problem in that whatever party is in power at any given time controls the public election process and has its own ideas about who it wants to vote.

Without getting into a political rant, suffice it to say that there are often people who don’t really want to make it easier for poor, disabled or minorities to vote and use the claim of widespread voter fraud (of which there no empirical evidence) to make it more difficult.

Having said that, I like Voatz’s chances. It appears to be a solid team and there will be a competitive advantage to getting to the market first with a product that delivers on the promise to deliver access, security, transparency and efficiency to the electoral process.

At the same, there are plenty of other kinds of elections to keep the company going while it adds the necessary bells and whistles and earns its trust in the marketplace.