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A Fireside Chat: West Virginia Secretary of State, Congressman Soto & Jonathan Johnson

Below is a transcription of a recent webinar involving a Fireside Chat between West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, Congressman Soto and moderated by Jonathan Johnson. The transcription has been repurposed with permission from the Chamber of Digital Commerce and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Full Fireside Chat can be viewed here.

Perianne Boring: Welcome to today’s webinar, Beyond the Pandemic: Has Voting Changed Forever? My name’s Perianne Boring. I’m the founder and president of the Chamber of Digital Commerce. If you’re not familiar with the chamber, we are a trade association representing companies that are innovating with watching technologies.

And we strive to be a resource to government, policymakers, public-sector stakeholders as they’re navigating through this new and exciting technology frontier. Today’s discussion centers around one of the most important constitutional rights we all have as Americans, voting. And it’s not only our right, but it’s our responsibility to vote.

And unfortunately, participation in many elections, particularly in local elections remains dismal and is significantly below rates that we’ve seen in other countries, in other developed countries. In over the past two decades, the US has had to reckon with a number of just inherent flaws and the election infrastructure and the processes around them.

We can’t forget what happened in the 2000s with the hanging chads, in 2016 the interference, and today we are scrambling to implement vote by mail in time for the November election. With the advent of COVID-19, it’s highlighted an acute and a pressing need to develop new ways of voting, especially solutions that can withstand unforeseen circumstances to critically address election security, voter accessibility, and our health, all while upholding the integrity of the results.

And these solutions will necessarily require the responsible integration of technology, but how? As we learned from a recent hearing in the US House of Representatives, the broad consensus was that, yes, now is the time to explore remote voting options that leverage technology. So in today’s conversation, we’ve got a pretty rare and unique opportunity as we explore this critical question of our time.

We’ve got an amazing group of experts lined up. We have a member from the US House of Representatives. We have a secretary of state here, cybersecurity experts, voting experts, technology experts and other election officials as we explore the current state of voting, how the pandemic is shifting election operations as we speak, the successful use case of smartphone voting that’s emerged in just the past two years and what to consider as we look towards the future of voting.

So our first session is moderated by Jonathan Johnson. Jonathan is the CEO of Overstock.com, which was one of the very first public companies that blockchain-enabled their payment options. He’s also the president of Medici Ventures. This is a fireside chat he’ll be moderating between the co-chair of the Congressional Blockchain Caucus, US Representative Darren Soto and the West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner. Jonathan, over to you.

Jonathan Johnson: Thank you, Perianne, and thanks to everyone who’s on. I’m really excited about this conversation.

Some of the themes I’d like to discuss are what are we doing about the election in a time when going to the polls poses a health risk. What’s the role of technology in voting in this new paradigm? What are our leaders doing on the ground? And in many fields, we’re witnessing unprecedented scientific technology in humanitarian collaboration.

How does that apply to the evolution of how we vote? 

So let me first introduce our fireside chat panelists.

Mac Warner is the West Virginia Secretary of State. He’s serving in his fourth year as West Virginia’s chief election officer. He’s a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, West Virginia University School of Law and holds a master’s degree in international law from the University of Virginia and the US Army War College.

Prior to serving as secretary of state, Secretary Warner devoted 23 years of service to the United States Army before retiring at the rank of lieutenant colonel. After his retirement, Secretary Warner spent five additional years in Afghanistan with the US State Department, and I love this picture. While in Afghanistan, Secretary Warner and his daughter, Lieutenant Lisa Warner-Miller, learned how difficult it was for deployed members of the military to cast an absentee ballot of mail.

He set out to find a way to ensure that military men and women could cast a ballot and vote in every election.

Congressman Darren Soto was elected in the US House of Representatives in 2016 and represents Central Florida after serving for a decade in the Florida legislature.

He began his career in politics at the age of 29 and is a proud graduate of Rutgers University and George Washington University School of Law. Representative Soto, my father is a GW law grad, so we share that association. He’s the first Floridian of Puerto Rican descent serving Congress and co-chairs, as Perianne mentioned, the Congressional Blockchain Caucus, which has grown to 17 members with near-even representation on both sides of the aisle.

Representative Soto’s view is that blockchain might be the most secure solution to many of the logistical challenges the federal government faces, including tracking and transmitting data. So let me start with you, Secretary Warner. Let’s get right down to it. I know you’ve implemented a major reform when it comes to elections in West Virginia. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Mac Warner: Sure. First, thanks to the Digital Chamber of Commerce for hosting this event, and what a timely topic as we all are entering into the general November 3rd election. What West Virginia has done is we’ve reached out.

The key to our perspective is providing voters options. And so, one key component of that to those people at the far fringes of the world, mainly our military and deployed situations on the hillsides of Afghanistan and submarines under the polar ice cap, perhaps even astronauts out there in outer space.

By the way, a roommate of my brother’s from West Point is heading up in the next space shuttle. That’s why I mentioned that, but those are examples of how people who rely on the traditional means, say the US Postal Service, to cast a ballot are going to be disenfranchised as we saw with the COVID-19 in this primary election. 180 countries had their postal service disrupted due to the pandemic, actually stopped in many cases.

So if you were a West Virginia citizen serving overseas or a student or somebody say working at one of our embassies, you would have been disenfranchised. Your vote would not have been able to reach the county clerks in time. So that’s why West Virginia in 2018 led an electronic voting option, and it was very successful. We had people from 31 countries, and we’re a small state, 1.2 million registered voters.

And we had people from 31 countries who were able to cast a ballot electronically. That was so successful that just this last year, our legislature in a bipartisan effort, unanimous vote.

Both parties said, “We’re going to extend that to voters with certain disabilities so people who cannot reach the polls due to their physical disability can also vote electronically.”

So we can talk more about that, but that’s just a quick overview of how West Virginia has taken the initiative to allow people to vote electronically.

Jonathan Johnson: Thank you, Secretary Warner.

I can’t imagine a more important group to have vote than our military. They’re defending our rights to vote, and we make it so hard for them to vote.

I’m glad that you’ve been on the cutting edge in doing that. Representative Soto, you live in Florida, which unfortunately is a place that’s notorious for hanging chads and the current outbreak of COVID. What are your thoughts on the election this year, and how do we both secure it but also enable the safety when it comes to those voting?

Darren Soto: Well, first as to hanging chads, I was still a senior in college when that happened. You have to give me a pass on that one. I can tell you though that we did get to work on modernizing Florida’s election system. Many of those reforms were still going on by the time I got into the legislature in 2007, including having machine-counted paper ballots that you fill out the circle rather than having any of these old hanging-chad machines.

So we’ve revamped that. When we look at the coronavirus pandemic that we’re facing right now in all states, and July was a tough month for Florida as you’ve mentioned. We’ve gone down quite a bit since then, but we’re the third most populous state and South Florida in particular. I represent the Central Florida area, was particularly hard hit by it.

We expect 60, maybe even 70%, turnout in vote by mail, both in the primary and in general elections. You do not need an excuse in Florida, and we see it very popular with both parties historically for many years. And so, now there’s still a paper ballot. So there’s no issue about afterwards doing the audits, that I know Secretary Warner has to do a few days after the election and others, to make sure that the results that are announced that night comport with the samples they do from the paper ballots themselves, but the key is there’s always a concern about fraud.

And there’s always a concern about how to get folks who are not in state but are Floridians their ballots, and Florida for several years now has accepted ballots via email by our service members.

And I concur with both of you that it is one of the greatest duties of each state and of the federal government to ensure that those who serve and defend our country are not disenfranchised.

I couldn’t think of a more disgraceful thing for what we ask of all these folks out across the world serving in various different capacities. So the question is how do we make sure that that’s safe? And that’s where utilizing blockchain technology with it being a fixed ledger can ensure that accuracy and that it can’t be changed afterwards, like it’s done with so many transactions that we see in cryptocurrency.

We allow for online registration in Florida, but there’s no online voting outside of these specific cases with military veterans.

So that would be a great place to start, like Secretary Warner’s doing in West Virginia and see how that fairs as we ramp it to a bigger program. In the meantime, what we’re also doing is there was over $400 billion in grants to the various states to be able to assist with the upcoming election.

And there is more money in the HEROES Act, 25 billion to be exact, for the post office to assist them. The current offer’s around five billion. The 25 billion would have been over several years to help them out.

That would be just for this year, but clearly there will be an increasing role as we get to more electronic ballots for those who can’t get there, and blockchain will be that stabilizing factor to keep the integrity of our elections.

Jonathan Johnson: Thank you. Representative Warner, I want to draw on two things that, or Secretary Warner, two things that Representative Soto said. One, he talked about auditing votes, and part of your role as the chief election officer in West Virginia is to be able to audit votes.

As you’ve used mobile voting, has there been an ability to audit and even have a paper audit?

And then, the second question I want to ask you is Representative Soto talked about Congress appropriating more to help in voting. I know that you’ve sent open letters to congressional leaders, as well as the secretary of defense and calling on them to do more. Talk to me about both those things, the ability to audit and your desire, what Congress can do.

Mac Warner: Sure, thank you for giving me an opportunity to address both of those. First, the audit piece, there are two systems. One, we used in 2018, and that was an app-based system. And then, now we’re using a web-based system, but both of these are excellent programs, and they both provide that audit ability that you referred to. And that’s the idea behind a pilot is you start, and you see if there are any… how it’s received, any technical glitches and so forth.

So in 2018, we had that ability by way of when the voter cast the vote using the app, emails went out. One came back to the voter so they could see what they actually voted. One went to the secretary of state’s office, mine, for audibility purposes. And then, the third went to the county clerk, which would be printed off and then counted just like any other ballot.

And since that time, they’ve even added a secure component. This can all be done with anonymity so that it maintains the secret ballot. The same thing goes with the web-based program that we’re doing right now. Think about being able to be transported into the cloud, and then a third-party auditor could compare the vote that was cast with the vote that was received and ensure that there was no man-in-the-middle attack and so forth.

So we are overcoming some of the objections that were originally cast upon this by MIT and the University of Michigan and various other players out there. We’ve overcome that, and now it’s time for that acceptability to take place and it is. It’s gaining more. These systems are being tried in more and more locations.

It’s now about a handful of states and municipalities where this is occurring. And so, that auditability is a key component of it. Know that this is in place now. The second part of the question, if you’ll remind me what that was.

Jonathan Johnson: It was you’ve sent an open letter to Congress and the defense secretary. What are you asking Congress to do, and why is this important?

Mac Warner: Well, they’re talking about the hundreds and millions of dollars. I think that 10 or 20 million of that could be set aside and go towards expanding this pilot program. We’re allowing it for voters, soldiers, from West Virginia. I think all DoD soldiers should have this opportunity.

I’ll make the analogy to Mark Twain’s the right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug. Just telling somebody their right is like the lightning bug. Giving them that right, giving them that opportunity to vote, that’s lightning. That’s powerful and that’s what I’m about with the electronic voting. I want to give that soldier on the hillside in Afghanistan the ability to vote.

It’s hard to transport a piece of paper via the mail. I went for about six months in Afghanistan without having been able to send mail because of attacks and so forth, but electronically we transport battlefield information via satellite, via technology, via the internet. And every soldier has that handheld device, whether it’s GPS or other secure technology.

And if we can do that, we can give them the right to vote using that same secure technology. So my request to Congressman Soto and what I’ve requested to the leadership with House, Senate and the DoD is to continue with this pilot program. We’ve tried it here in West Virginia. One quick example, a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa from West Virginia was able to vote electronically, and she was the envy of all of her other folks.

She even mentioned a particular Peace Corps volunteer from Florida who said, “How can West Virginia vote electronically and we’re a much larger state, and we don’t have that capability?” We need this acceptance, and I think DoD doing it, as we’ve all discussed, giving that right and that power, that opportunity for soldiers to vote, if that was done across DoD, you’d have soldiers from all 50 states.

And then, those states can start looking at their individual laws and adjusting their system so they can allow their folks. We need to start small. I think the soldiers is the right demographic. And once it’s proven there, then you can use a wider audience, such as we’re now experiencing with the pandemic. Had we done this two or four years ago, I think a lot of us would be voting electronically during the pandemic, but thank you for letting me address those.

Jonathan Johnson: No, it’s great. And I’ll note, I live in Utah. We’ve done some of this voting, both for military and military families and the disabled in Utah. It’s really fantastic. Representative Soto, there was recently a House hearing with a big takeaway, and that was talking about exploring remote voting for members of Congress during crisis situation.

This seems like a really significant milestone to me. I’ve long thought we’ve got to have members of Congress living among their constituents rather than living among the lobbyists in Washington DC. How do you think mobile voting, particularly safe, secure, auditable mobile voting, might affect the future of the body of Congress or their positives or their downsides. What are your thoughts there?

Darren Soto: Sure, let’s start with two points of context before going into it. One, ever since about 1994 when Newt Gingrich became speaker, it became much more the expectation that members of Congress go back to their districts, and that has shifted ever since then. So for instance, I’m right now in Kissimmee, Florida five blocks from my house in our district office speaking to you, and I love coming home.

I live in Central Florida, so I can’t wait to get out of DC after my job’s done to come back and engage with my constituents, and that’s true for most members of Congress. We spend about 50% of our time in Washington and about 50% home, and some people live in other time zones. They have to take multiple planes, so it’s even tougher for them.

Then, two is that we’re in a pandemic. And not only would it be a response for us to all gather all at once in one big block for the health of members with preexisting conditions and those who are seniors, but it also could affect national security, if we had a huge outbreak of the coronavirus among the Congress and incapacitated the legislative body for the most powerful nation on Earth.

So we vote in waves and give the option for proxy voting, and so you have still around 80, 85% of the members who are still casting their votes in person with that option even there. We cast in waves, but that was important. First of all, the Senate was doing it already for a month or two before we started and doing hybrid teleconference hearings.

You have the option to go to the hearing in person. You could attend from your office or otherwise via Webex, and even the Supreme Court talk about… The most antiquated of the three branches, even they did teleconferencing before we did. So it was really time for the House to do it. The House Republicans sued the majority. They got knocked out of court just the other day, because it’s a separation of powers issue.

And we have the right to be able to make those rules, and it has bipartisan support in the Senate anyway, and most of the executive branches are meeting that way. So it’s absolutely critical for the functioning of our nation. We proposed during the time period where Democrats and Republicans on the Rules Committee were making a determination on proxy voting to use a blockchain system.

While it was not accepted, because they really wanted to rally behind a form of voting that’s been utilized many times in American history before, proxy voting, which is much more just person to person. Someone can hold as many as 10 proxies, although no one’s holding 10 proxies right now in Congress, because most people are voting in person still, but it was considered.

And the committee staff is reviewing it as a way to remote vote. Right now though, it’s done by email per vote to the member who is the proxy-holder. And usually, people are holding one to two, three proxies at max right now based upon my experience. So at least Congress is starting to consider those things. The issue of progress in the blockchain area in Congress isn’t a partisan issue.

It’s more of overcoming ignorance and educating the members more and more of the importance of this technology, and assuring integrity in internet transactions in voting and in other systems that we will come to rely on more and more. So there is some progress being made, but certainly, there’s still a lot of education left to go.

Jonathan Johnson: Thank you. Let me close by sharing an anecdote. I live in congressional district three in Utah. In 2017, our congressman resigned and we had a special election in a closed primary. It was conducted all vote by mail. Some of the county clerks in this district sent out ballots, not just to Republicans in a closed primary but to independents and others.

Vote by mail can suffer from human error. In that election, our state auditor noted that the privacy sheath that was included in the vote by mail was see-through. Everyone that voted with the expectation of a secret ballot had that taken away. This can be solved with electronic mobile voting that is safe, secure and auditable using blockchain technology.

It’s time to come to the future. Secretary Warner, Representative Soto, I appreciate you not just being thought leaders but being action leaders as we look at ways to improve one of our most sacred rights as Americans. And I think blockchain technology is one of the keys to doing this. So thanks for what you’re doing on the frontlines. Keep at it and thanks for participating in this fireside chat.

Mac Warner: Thank you, Jonathan.

Darren Soto: Thanks so much.

Perianne Boring: Thanks so much, really appreciate Secretary Warner and Congressman Soto and Jonathan Johnson for that fascinating conversation and really outlining why this needs to be a priority, why this matters, who this matters to, our service members. We talked about those who are serving our country need to have a safe and reliable way to exercise their right to vote.

People with disabilities oftentimes are left out of this conversation and also appreciate Congressman Soto highlighting why this is not a partisan issue. This is about ensuring the appropriate technologies are deployed in a safe way so all Americans can exercise this sacred right to vote, so thank you.

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