So in a pilot program this May, West Virginia became the first state to let some of its voters cast ballots for a federal election on their phones using blockchain--the technology behind the cryptocurrency boom and a theoretically hack-proof means of logging transactions or, in this case, votes. For the pilot, West Virginia residents from two counties who are serving overseas or living abroad were given access to their ballot through a mobile app for the May 8 House and Senate primaries, said Sheila Nix, president of Tusk/Montgomery Philanthropies, one of the organizations the state worked with on the trial run. The eligible voters were granted access to vote in March to abide by federal rules mandating a 45-day period for overseas residents to cast their ballots. The blockchain of votes for those two counties is currently being audited, a process expected to finish as soon as this week, said Donald Kersey, the elections director for the West Virginia secretary of state's office. If the audit confirms the results as expected, West Virginia would continue the pilot in the November general election with funds from Tusk/Montgomery, giving all counties the chance to opt in.
West Virginia's decision to allow voters to vote through their smartphone raises serious security concerns. You can already trade stocks, find a new home or board a flight using your smartphone – perhaps it was only a matter of time before you could vote. West Virginia will be the first state to formally test this technology, allowing overseas residents to vote by app in November's general election. As part of an effort to simplify the absentee ballot process – and reduce the risk of votes not being counted – West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner approved the electoral innovation, which is meant for West Virginians living abroad or serving in the military overseas. "West Virginia is a really a leader in cybersecurity," Mike Queen, a spokesperson for Warner, told Fox News.
Voting in West Virginia just got a lot more high-tech--and experts focused on election security aren't happy about it. This fall, the state will become the first in the US to allow some voters to submit their federal general election ballots using a smartphone app, part of a pilot project primarily involving members of the military serving overseas. The decision seems to fly in the face of years of dire warnings about the risks of online voting issued by cybersecurity researchers and advocacy groups focused on election integrity. But even more surprising is how West Virginia officials say they plan to address those risks: by using a blockchain. The project has drawn harsh criticism from election security experts, who argue that as designed, the system does little to fix the problems inherent in online voting.
Despite our skepticism of applying tech to the electoral process, CNN reports that after limited tests earlier this year (PDF), West Virginia is planning to roll out mobile voting for its midterm elections in November. Availability will be limited "largely" to troops serving abroad as an alternative to mailed absentee ballots, and individual counties can decide whether or not to participate. The plan is to use software from Voatz (the z, presumably, keeps it fresh), a startup that has received about $2.4 million in funding so far. Because it's 2018, Voatz naturally touts its use of blockchain technology (as well as registration based on government ID and a self-shot video for facial recognition, plus an additional layer of biometric security with either another selfie or thumbprint) to anonymously tally and verify each submitted ballot. West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner told CNN that the software successfully passed four audits that tested its cloud and blockchain tech; however, its setup has already faced criticism from researchers like Sarah Jamie Lewis for "weak" single-user blockchain technology that in practice is just a database, and its unpublished source code.
West Virginians currently living overseas began using a blockchain-enabled mobile voting app to cast absentee ballots for the midterms on Friday. A Boston-based startup called Voatz created the app using blockchain encryption so that people can vote remotely and securely if a polling place or dependable mail services are unavailable. West Virginia officials are particularly promoting the app for use among military members who have been deployed abroad. "There is nobody that deserves the right to vote any more than the guys that are out there, and the women that are out there, putting their lives on the line for us," West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner told CNN last month. The state ran a pilot program for the new voting option in two counties in May along with four independent audits, and it will now be available to overseas residents from 24 counties for the November elections.