Podcast Host, Technology Journalist, Public Speaker, Writing a book on enterprise blockchain
Utah County is the latest jurisdiction in the U.S. to implement blockchain-based mobile voting in their upcoming municipal primary election in August. Tusk Philanthropies, which aims to increase voter turnout and participation in U.S. elections, has partnered with the Utah County Elections Division, Voatz, and the National Cybersecurity Center, to offer a blockchain-based mobile voting pilot to active-duty military, their eligible dependents and overseas voters.
The pilot will be powered by Voatz, a mobile elections platform driven by military-grade technology that ensures safety and ease for individuals voting anywhere in the world. Last year in West Virginia, Voatz launched the first blockchain-based mobile voting solution used during a federal election. Voatz was also the underlying technology provider in Denver’s May 7th municipal election.
“Our technology has been used in West Virginia, Denver and is now being applied in Utah across nine different cities. The election in Utah will be smaller than the election in Denver, but the concept remains the same. We aim to make voting easy and safe for overseas citizens.” Nimit Sawhney, CEO and co-founder of Voatz, told me.
According to Sawhney, election officials in Utah County and across the country are recognizing that current absentee voting methods are insufficient, specifically for active military members and overseas citizens. In turn, many individuals living abroad are less likely to vote. Data from the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) reflects this, showing that in 2016 there were 3 million U.S. citizens living abroad whom cast approximately 208,000 ballots. The overseas voter turnout was just 7% compared to a domestic turnout of 72%.
“Election officials in Utah County and across the country are recognizing that current absentee voting methods are not sufficient. Members of the military who are stationed overseas or young people serving missions around the world should be able to take advantage of the latest advances in smartphone hardware, encryption and blockchain technology to cast their ballot. We are delighted that voters in Denver, West Virginia and now Utah County have had an opportunity to evaluate the security and ease of voting from a mobile device.”
The pilot will largely be used by troops serving abroad, who have traditionally had to rely on using absentee paper ballots, making it difficult to participate in elections. According to the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission, nearly 300,000 overseas voters requested ballots, but were unable to return them to their county clerks back home in the 2016 elections.
“Utah’s pilot is another sign that the momentum for mobile voting in our country is very real and supports our theory that when you show people a much better way to do something, there becomes a demand for it,” said Bradley Tusk, founder and CEO of Tusk Philanthropies. “As we enter into a Presidential election year, we have to continue to remove as many barriers and hurdles as possible so a lot more people are able to participate in our democracy.”
While mobile voting makes it easier for overseas citizens to cast their votes, blockchain technology adds ease, transparency and security.
“Voatz uses biometrics, ID verification and blockchain technology as a unique mechanism for data security and post election auditing. The process begins with overseas citizens applying for an absentee ballot. Once a county clerk verifies users information, they can download the Voatz app on their smartphone. Full identification verification is required, along with a ‘video motion selfie,’ used for facial recognition matching. Once everything is approved, users will receive a mobile ballot, which is fully anonymous and stored on a blockchain network. A fingerprint is needed to unlock it,” explained Sawhney.
The Voatz mobile election platform is powered by Hyperledger Fabric, the enterprise grade blockchain framework hosted by the Linux Foundation. The voting database is distributed across 32 computing nodes on machines hosted by Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, all within the geographical bounds of the U.S. Voatz monitors the nodes alongside select nonprofits that act as independent supervisors.
“Just as voters using the platform must go through a vetting process before voting, those who want to run a node, also known as the auditors in this case, must be vetted. In the Denver election, eighteen people signed up to be auditors, which laid the foundation for this,” said Sawhney.
It’s also important to point out that the Voatz platform doesn’t rely on cryptocurrency. According to Swahney, in the case of voting, cryptocurrency shouldn’t be applied as an incentive mechanism in order to avoid conflicts.
“We don’t have cryptocurrency as an incentive mechanism because we want to avoid conflicts of interest and legal complications that might arise in terms of having to pay someone to audit a transaction. Everything across the network is done from goodwill to support transparent democracy, which is all compliant with U.S. regulations.”
Data Security Of Electronic Voting Systems
However, while a blockchain-based mobile application may ease the process for overseas voters to cast their ballots, data security behind electronic voting systems remains questionable.
Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in which Russian hackers attempted to delete and alter voter data, concerns have been raised regarding data protection. Yet according to Swahney, blockchain ensures data protection much more efficiently than traditional electronic voting systems.
“No voter identifiable information is being stored on the blockchain, just the cast ballots. The public can also access the blockchain as well and do individual analysis without knowing who voted. This is a big step toward creating transparency. The other challenge of electronic voting is the question of how to keep data tamper resistant from the time when the voters cast their ballots to when the tabulation happens. Using blockchain helps with this, plus it has auditing capabilities that adds transparency and verifiability of the whole transaction.”
During the Denver election, The National Cybersecurity Center (NCC) provided an open audit to the public to ensure that voter’s choices were honored.
“On Election Day, a county clerks will receive two sets of keys to unlock the digital lock box that hold the records on the blockchain. They then print those ballots and scan them in. Voters will receive a digitally signed receipt once they submit their ballots and the jurisdiction will get an anonymous copy. Once the election is over, the jurisdiction uses anonymous receipts and compares those with the printed ballot and data on the blockchain,” explained Swahney.
While Voatz is only applicable for overseas military personnel and their families eligible to vote in Utah, Swahney mentioned that next steps are to extend the technology to people with disabilities.
“In a post election survey from the Denver Elections Division, 100% of respondents said they favored secure mobile voting over all methods available to them. Next on our roadmap is to learn from every pilot we do and make improvements. For example, from the West Virginia election we learned how to make the post election audit process more collaborative so that citizens can participate with county clerks. In the future, we want to expand this to those with disabilities and will work on making the platform more accessible.”