One Ballot’s Journey: From a Village in West Africa to the Polls in West Virginia

GUINEA, WEST AFRICA — Tucked away in a tiny village in the far corner of Guinea, Amiti Maloy lives in a one-room, roundly earthen hut with a thatched roof, no electricity, no running water and a semi-functional solar panel to charge her phone.

Most days, it takes a village — literally — to charge her phone, dropping it by the local “charging station”, or a wooden outdoor stall where two young men run a generator to charge a majority of the village’s cell phones.

Amiti is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea. She spends most days teaching, leading hands-on educational camps and coaching soccer to a spirited squad of middle school girls. Her most recent initiative is well under way — building the village’s first computer center and crafting a four-year computer literacy program with three volunteers — catching the attention of Guinea’s National Ministry of Education.

The rest of the time Amiti lives like a local, tending to the village and pulling water by hand from a well, filling 12 buckets and dragging the cart home with a member from her family, often a woman with a baby strapped to her back. For each trip, Amiti retains one bucket of water — approximately five gallons — and so does this multiple times per week.

^Amiti with her student and coworker at the Let Girls Learn Conference

Amiti moved to Guinea in 2017, packing up her belongings from West Virginia and deploying to the French-speaking country with less than two weeks’ notice. Amiti had been inspired to do the Peace Corps by her mother, who’d never had the chance to do it herself but always admired the work. After more than a decade of politically-engaged work in Morgantown, West Virginia, Amiti decided it was time to try something she’d never made time to do before, taking the leap into service.

When speaking to Amiti, it’s no secret she’s an engaged citizen and takes her duty as such quite seriously. Despite being located halfway across the world with feeble internet connection and unpredictable electricity at best, she’s managed stay up-to-date on the political goings-on in her West Virginian residence from afar, reading online newsfeeds, reaching out to old friends and listening to the BBC stream through her crackly radio.

Amiti knows the bills on West Virginia’s Senate Floor, she knows the candidates running for State Legislature and she knows that often local politics — more than national — hold the largest impact on communities.

She also knows that being registered in the politically-torn state of West Virginia matters, and that safely casting her vote — no matter from how far away — matters.

So when it came time to vote in the 2018 U.S. Midterm Elections, finding a way to make sure she could — all the way from her tiny village in a country with no postal system — was critical.

In late 2018, when West Virginia Secretary
of State Mac Warner announced that a mobile voting pilot would extend to 24 counties for the Midterms, Amiti received an email from her County Clerk saying she had the option to vote using her smartphone and an app called Voatz. The program was new, and it was fully optional. She still had the option to vote via mail-in paper ballot, but she didn’t have access to a printer; she also still had the option to vote via email.

“But I didn’t feel that email was as protected, or that my vote would actually be counted because, you know, it’s so easy to miss an email, so easy to miss a vote when there’s tons of them going through,” Amiti says.

So Amiti went with Voatz, downloading and troubleshooting from her tiny village’s spotty internet connection, and verifying her identity against the State’s Voter Registration Database of mobile-eligible voters.

^Amiti lives in the far northeast corner of Guinea, near Mali, where electricity and cell service are limited.

Word had gotten around to the other volunteers.
Earlier that year, a group of them had rallied to print absentee ballot request forms for all volunteers from the capital, where there was a printer, a scanner, and a diplomatic pouch mailing system through the U.S. State Department. Traveling to the capital city for many volunteers was a three-day journey by car, so this group of volunteers did whatever necessary for each to remotely submit their request form — some states required a scanned PDF, some required a picture and an email, some required fax, while others, the biggest gamble of all, required physical mailing from Guinea.

“When I told my friends that I was going to get to vote with my smartphone and showed them the app, it drew a lot of attention — specifically from one volunteer from Florida who was extremely jealous. He was like ‘How? You’re from West Virginia! How is it that West Virginia has something that Florida doesn’t have?’ He asked me questions about the identity verification stuff and he was like ‘Woah, it’s doing a retinal scan! It’s doing this! It’s doing this!’”

“You know, most of my friends didn’t vote because it was too complicated with the way the mail is here — or isn’t here, really. Most of them were very jealous and hoped that they could get the chance to vote this way someday.

^Amiti’s post on Facebook (October 22, 2018) with a screenshot of her mobile ballot, ready for voting.

Amiti visited her ballot in the Voatz app several times, making sample selections, then exiting the app before submitting. On occasion she lost her internet connection — “but I never lost my chance to vote, which I was worried about. When I logged back in, my ballot was still there, waiting to be submitted up until the deadline, which was always very comforting.”

When Amiti finally decided to submit her vote, it was after class — in her hut. She had just finished teaching a full day of school, and mentioned to her students that she was voting after class.

“They’re familiar with the idea of voting, and thought it was cool.” For Guineans, voting is a recent phenomenon. The country recently became a democracy in 2011 after 25 years of military dictatorship, and 25 more of communist rule.

“I voted as close to Election Day as I thought possible in order to be as informed as possible, but also a day with good cell service (not during the monthly service blackout periods) and with enough time to email or contact if something did go wrong.”

She made her selections, checked and re-checked her answers, pressing “Submit” and using her biometric key to send it off.

“I was still a little apprehensive that it would go smoothly but there was no need — it was a breeze.”

^Amiti’s post on Facebook (November 2, 2018) four days before the Midterm Elections with her submission confirmation.

“After I submitted I got a receipt right away with a confirmation that it was counted and a printout of my votes, which is more than I get when I go normally to vote, where I never get a copy of what I sent. I reviewed all my choices, thoroughly. It felt much more private than having a ballot specifically sent to you and you emailing it back, you know?

“Honestly it was much easier and much less painful than regular voting is — especially right now, where our only options are mail, fax and email, which are hard to deal with living in a place like Guinea.

“It’s pretty cool that I was one of the first to try it out. I hope it becomes available to all places because, like I said, if I ever join the Peace Corps again, no matter where I live I’d love to feel comfortable knowing that I could vote this way again.”

Amiti finishes her Peace Corps service later this year. What’s next?

“I’m not sure yet, but maybe diving back into the campaign scene — we’ll see.”

Photo courtesy:
Amiti Maloy
Colt Bradley

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) and Voatz

Buzz has been building in various corners of the United States around the concept of “Ranked Choice Voting”.

What is it? How does it work? And how is it different from the current system where you vote for your favorite candidate, hope they win, and prepare for your supposed “worst”?

At Voatz, we’re fascinated by varying methods for voting and mostly, working to ensure that the systems used to implement them are user-friendly, accessible and accurate when it comes to tabulating the mathematical calculations.


What is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)?

To you, the voter, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is a relatively simple change to the way you vote. In the current system, you pick one candidate. With RCV, you rank candidates in the order you prefer them (first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on).

^how it would look to vote with RCV in ranking your first, second, and third choices

How does the math work?

After voters go to the polls, rank their choices and submit their ballots, here’s what happens:

  1. On Election Night, all ballots are counted only for the voters’ first choices.
  2. If a candidate receives an outright majority, they win, just like today.
  3. Unlike today, if no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. If that was your first choice, your vote instantly counts for your next choice.
  4. This process repeats, with last-place candidates getting eliminated and voters who selected that candidate having their ballots counted for their second (or third, or fourth…) ranked choice, until one candidate reaches a majority and wins.
^sample RCV tabulation, with the first round of “instant runoff”, where in this case, the lowest-percentage candidate with 8% gets eliminated and those voters who selected that candidate have their votes allocated to their second choice candidates; in this case, this process continues until a winner reaches 50%


In short, your vote counts for your second choice only if your first choice has been eliminated (i.e. this is a case of “instant runoff”). Ultimately, if your first choice doesn’t win, rather than not having a voice thereafter, your ballot still gets counted for your second, third or fourth choices, and so on.


^sample of how RCV tabulation looks with four rounds of instant runoff

With multi-seat elections, ballots can grow lengthy, where you rank among many candidates for many seats (i.e. 10 open seats, 30 candidates). In the case of many candidates and many seats, you would rank among the many candidates for those many seats (i.e. pull your favorites from the 30 candidates and rank them among the 10 ranked seats).

^sample of a multi-choice ballot with 5 open seats and, in this case, 9 candidates, with ability to add multiple write-ins

The challenges to RCV include the need, often, for particular machines that can administer the vote and tabulate results. Some machines support only up to three rankings, which might not be enough for a crowded election, and most machines require rankings downloaded onto a memory card and transmitted to a central counting location, where files from each precinct must be aggregated before counting.

Lastly, for the voter, ballots can look like the one above, which can grow complex with more candidates and more open seats.


How does it work with Voatz?

Voatz has built-in capacity for RCV and instant tabulation, with emphasis on designing for maximized usability and seamless results.

Once a voter is verified to vote in the election, they access the ballot, rank their choices, and cast their ballot either on their smartphone or the Voatz tablet application.

^Voatz RCV interface 

Benefits to using Voatz for RCV include:

  • Voters use widely-available consumer hardware (smartphone and/or tablet)
  • Secure verification and ease-of-use for voters to vote with their smartphones
  • Built-in support for Ranked Choice Voting at no additional cost
  • Immediately intuitive drag-and-drop interface
  • Device submits the rankings directly to the location where they will be tabulated (no need to transmit)
  • Auditable results

Interested in using Voatz for RCV in your upcoming election? We’d love to hear from you.



Ranked Choice Voting Minnesota
RCV Maine

Remote Mobile Voting: Answering Questions, Addressing Misconceptions

When West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner took office in 2017, he instructed his staff to explore ways to make voting more convenient for military personnel, their families and civilians stationed or working abroad (UOCAVA voters). As an officer in the army, Secretary Warner experienced firsthand how difficult it is for soldiers and civilians abroad to vote and return a ballot in time to be counted.

The statistics confirm the case: in 2016, the estimated voting participation rate for U.S. citizens living overseas was 6.9% compared to the 72% participation rate for citizens living in the United States.

In early 2018, Secretary Warner launched the nation’s first mobile voting pilot for two counties of West Virginia’s UOCAVA voters. Using their own Apple or Android smartphone, an authenticated, registered voter was able to receive, mark and submit a secret ballot from virtually anywhere in the world. Due to the success of this small pilot in the 2018 Primaries, Secretary Warner widened the pilot to 24 counties for the 2018 Midterm Elections in the fall.

Every ballot submitted was encrypted and stored on a geographically distributed and redundant network of blockchain servers managed by the two largest cloud infrastructure providers. At the close of polls, every ballot was printed in its respective county and tabulated on federally certified tabulation equipment. Post-election audits were performed on every ballot submitted via smartphones.

As a result of these successful pilots, Secretary Warner has emerged as a thought leader in America’s elections. In February, he spoke at an event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center where he showed this video describing the State’s experience with remote mobile voting. In addition, a white paper has been published sharing the results of the 2018 Midterm Election pilot.

^ details from West Virginia’s mobile voting pilot (2018 Midterm Elections); learn more here

Several misconceptions have surfaced about the West Virginia pilots that we at Voatz would like to address, along with some other questions that warrant discussion.

Q: What is “blockchain voting”?

The phrase “blockchain voting” is a misnomer. In the West Virginia pilots, the term “blockchain” refers to a well-vetted method of storing voting transactions immutably across multiple, redundant, geographically distributed servers that makes it virtually impossible to hack. West Virginia utilized remote mobile voting, which leverages smartphone hardware, biometrics and cryptography in addition to blockchain technology. The combination of these technologies makes remote mobile voting a compelling solution. It is therefore important to distinguish from “blockchain voting”.

Q: What’s the difference between “mobile voting” and “blockchain voting”?

This is an important distinction. The term “blockchain voting” refers to a type of voting that uses a blockchain to store vote transactions. “Mobile voting” uses smartphone hardware, biometrics and cryptography to create a compelling solution to the challenges involved in a voting system: the ability to authenticate a voter’s identity, anonymize and secure that voter’s identity, allow a voter receive the correct ballot style, submit it, and verify their vote. In Voatz’s case, blockchain technology is used as a final step to immutably secure the ballots, and to provide the jurisdiction the ability for a robust post-election audit.

Q: What value does blockchain technology offer to elections?

The blockchain storage method performed two functions in the 2018 pilots. First, it secured the incoming votes from 144 voters in 31 countries from manipulation. Second, it functioned as the secure infrastructure that enabled a transparent post-election audit of a voter-verified ballot.

Q: Why is blockchain technology, which is used to secure bitcoin, relevant to elections?

The advantage of a “public blockchain”, which is the type used to distribute trust and secure bitcoin, is not relevant in elections because elections are jurisdiction-specific (e.g. cities, counties, countries), and require the ability to ensure that participation in the blockchain happens within the boundaries of that jurisdiction. As such, a “permissioned blockchain”, rather than a public blockchain, is ideal for West Virginia to provide 24 counties with a single infrastructure to store voting transactions, and to ensure that all validating nodes operate within U.S. boundaries. 

Q: Was the voter’s ballot private?

Yes. When the voter submits their ballot, an anonymous voter ID (AVID) is created in the smartphone application that is cryptographically attached to all voting transactions. Only the voter knows the AVID linked to their own identity.

Q: Were West Virginia’s county clerks able to perform post-election audits on ballots printed from the blockchain?

Yes, and according to Donald Kersey, West Virginia’s General Counsel, “the West Virginia county clerks were quite pleased with their ability to audit the ballots printed from the blockchain both before and after being tabulated.”

Every ballot was voter-verified. For a small number of voters who accidentally submitted their ballots before voting on every contest, each voter was able to spoil their ballot and cast another. Since blockchain storage is immutable, spoiling the first ballot does not remove it from the blockchain. Both blockchain-stored ballots had the same anonymous voter ID; only the one with the latest timestamp was printed and tabulated.

Progress in elections is slow, and many believe that is a good thing. New technology and new methods inevitably go through a series of trials, and it is through these trials that we learn what works well and where adjustments need to be made.

Voatz is in an exhilarating period of rapid learning and iteration. We look forward to serving election officials who seek to bring greater security and convenience to their voters, regardless of their circumstances.

Voatz Attends Conference in Georgia on “Electoral Integrity: Cybersecurity and the Reliability of Information in the Digital Era”

Last week, representatives from our team attended the 9th Annual Meeting of Election Management Bodies, a gathering hosted by the International Center for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS).

The conference was held in Batumi, Georgia, and focused on the theme “Electoral Integrity: Cybersecurity and the Reliability of Information in the Digital Era”. These gatherings draw together election experts, analysts, representatives from election management bodies and research centers to discuss the challenges and complexities facing elections.

During the conference, Jesse Andrews, Director of Business Development, led a conversation that explored elections and elections security in our modern era. The talk dissected the components surrounding election security: election setup, ensuring physical safety to the voter, securing election integrity, digital security, participation rates and fair results. 

The crux of the talk posed the question: what is the relationship between security and participation? Often, the two can be at odds with one another — greater security practices can make it harder to participate in elections, and great turnout can make securing polling stations harder. He shared that at Voatz, we consider participation to be part of security, and that both securing the vote and participation are critical for a democracy to function well.