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On the evening of May 8, polls closed in West Virginia’s primary election, marking the conclusion of the first government-run, blockchain-mediated vote in the history of the United States.
Mike Queen, communications director for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, said his office believes that “blockchain does provide a heightened level of security on this type of mobile voting app.” He went on to say, “We’re genuinely hoping that will allow this type of a mobile app to be made available in the future – as early perhaps as our general election – to military voters.”
The blockchain-based mobile voting platform, developed by Voatz, was only available to a select group of voters. Participants were deployed military members, other citizens eligible to vote absentee under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), and their spouses and dependents. Participation was further limited to voters registered in two West Virginia counties, Harrison and Monongalia.
State electoral processes and organization are the purview of the Office of the Secretary of State. Mike Queen, communications director for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, said:
“[The office of the Secretary believes] blockchain does provide a heightened level of security on this type of mobile voting app. We’re genuinely hoping that will allow this type of a mobile app to be made available in the future – as early perhaps as our general election – to military voters.”
The audit will be conducted by employees of Voatz, the company behind the voting system, the clerks representing Harrison and Monongalia counties, and possibly other parties. According to Queen, Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist who has been described as a sharing economy “lobbyist” and who had arranged to pay Voatz the roughly $150,000 it was charging to conduct the exercise, will also participate in the review process, though it’s unclear whether he will contribute to the audit itself. IT and cybersecurity personnel with the state of West Virginia will review the audit’s findings as well.
Following the audit, Secretary Warner will decide whether to implement the program statewide in the upcoming general elections in November. Queen predicts that Warner will only move ahead with statewide implementation if auditors of the trial-run agree that it is prudent to do so. Queen said that he expects Warner to make a decision by mid-July on whether to expand the program.
While Queen expresses hope for the system’s use in future elections, some experts remain skeptical regarding electronic voting, and Voatz’s solution in particular. University of South Carolina computer science professor Duncan Buell believes that the facial-recognition and fingerprint-scanning technologies the company employs to verify voter identities could be vulnerable to hacks.
Queen, however, said the Secretary’s office is “very encouraged so far today and we believe that [blockchain-based voting] is a real viable option.” He added that there “are a lot of other states who are asking about this mobile voting solution and who are also interested in it.”
According to the US Election Assistance Commission, over 200,000 UOCAVA ballots transmitted to voters (registered nationwide) in the 2016 general election were, for one reason or another, not returned. In Queen’s view, if those hundreds of thousands of voters went through the trouble of requesting ballots in the first place, it’s appropriate for the state to play a role in making it easier for them to participate in elections.
Despite enthusiasm within the Secretary of State’s office, however, the trial faced some criticism. An article in the widely-read Charleston Gazette-Mail, written (as Queen pointed out) by an author from “outside of West Virginia,” questioned whether a vote cast via the app could be “distorted before it’s recorded.”
He alleged that the facial-recognition and fingerprint-scanning technologies that the company uses to verify voters’ identities could be vulnerable to hacking and described the Voatz-mediated election as “an instance of faith-based voting.” By this, he meant that the public would be asked to trust in the fortitude of code that has not been reviewed by actors outside the company. In his estimation, relying on this code represents a partial transfer of authority from public elections officials to a private company.