West Virginia to pioneer mobile smartphone voting in federal elections

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles August 9, 2018
My native state of West Virginia is known for its ancient, majestic mountains, its dreary coal mining camps and its favored proximity to paradise (as in “Almost Heaven”). Technological innovation? Not so much. Until now.

Voting election blockchain
In November, West Virginians serving overseas will become the first Americans to cast federal election ballots using a mobile smartphone app, an initiative designed to make voting easier for troops living abroad but also one that has security experts who believe that online voting is particularly vulnerable to attack freaking out. With all the Russians and Chinese and 300-pound hackers living in their moms’ basements in New Jersey, now is not the right time to be throwing fresh chum in the water, they argue. Said Marian Schneider, president of the nonpartisan advocacy group Verified Voting:

From what is available publicly about this app, it's no different from sending voting materials over the internet. So that means that all the built-in vulnerability of doing the voting transactions over the internet is present.

Among those vulnerabilities, the device or the browser a voter is using could be compromised by malware. If there is a link involved in the process, it might be spoofed to redirect to a different website. There’s also the risk that someone could impersonate the voter. The servers that online voting systems rely on could be targeted by viruses to tamper with votes or by DDoS attacks to bring down the whole system. Online voting can’t guarantee that your vote will always stay private. Most importantly, electronic votes don’t create a paper trail that would allow officials to audit elections after the fact, or to serve as a backup if there is tampering involved. Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, is skeptical.

Mobile voting is a horrific idea. It’s internet voting on people’s horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paper record of the vote.

Still, most political and policy leaders agree that making voting easier and more convenient is a goal to be desired if the integrity of the process can be guaranteed. Thirty-one states and Washington, DC, already allow some people, mostly service members serving abroad, to file absentee ballots online. But in 28 of those states—including Alaska, where any registered voter can vote online—online voters must waive their right to a secret ballot.

West Virginia secretary of state Mac Warner and Voatz, the Boston-based blockchain startup that built the voting app, insist the system is secure. The Voatz platform, as we wrote here back in January, 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.

Voatz runs on a public permissioned blockchain built on the HyperLedger framework and doesn’t use any form of cryptocurrency. Unlike current voting systems, the company claims Voatz can ensure tamper-proof record keeping, identity verification through facial recognition software and proper auditing by incorporating a secure, immutable blockchain.

Secretary of State Warner, a former US army colonel who served 23 years in remote places, was familiar firsthand with the difficult vote-by-mail process for citizens living abroad and wanted to find solution. Said Warner:

Think of a soldier on a hillside in Afghanistan or a sailor under the polar ice caps. They don’t have access to U.S. mail. Sometimes they’re in a classified area such as a nuclear sub or simply don’t have access to scanners, fax machines and that sort of thing. They do have access to the internet, mobile devices. It’s a tremendous solution to a very difficult problem and with West Virginia having the highest per capita volunteers in the U.S. military, we owe it to them.

Using the Voatz platform, voters first authenticate their identity using a fingerprint scan on their phones. Voters must also upload a photo of an official ID—which Voatz verifies by scanning their barcodes—and a video selfie, which Voatz will match to the ID using facial-recognition technology. One hitch might be that the app works only on certain Androids and recent iPhones with that feature.

After a vote is entered and verified it is added it to the blockchain, where it stays in a lockbox until election night. Voatz hand delivers cryptographic keys to election officials once the polls are closed.

To address concerns about ballot secrecy, CEO Nimit Sawhney says Voatz deletes all personal identification data from its servers, assigns each person a unique but anonymous identifier within the system, and employs a mix of network encryption methods:

We feel like that extra level of anonymization on the phone and on the network makes it really hard to reverse-engineer.

West Virginia is leaving the decision about participating in mobile voting to its counties. And the troops involved in it will continue to have the option of voting old-school with paper ballots.

My take

I remain impressed with Voatz technology and the potential of combining biometrics and blockchain to create a secure system that may over time bring millions of more voters into the electoral process. This is a small live run affecting only a few hundred voters in total but it is still an important step because it may expose flaws that can be corrected for future elections. Everything the worry warts in data security are sounding the alarm about might happen but we won’t know until we know.

In the meantime, I’m proud of my home state for finally being first in something positive.

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