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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.

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