Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Some voters in Provo and other Utah County cities will be able to cast ballots on a blockchain-powered mobile app in a pilot program for the August election.
This election season, the option to vote remotely via blockchain is coming to overseas voters from nine new U.S. cities. West Virginia became the first state to pilot the technology last year, with Denver following in May as the first city. In this August’s local elections, far-flung voters from Utah County, home to the city of Provo, will be able to log their votes on a mobile application, too.
At its core, the technology is meant to make voting easier and increase primary turnout, which is historically lower than that of general elections. About 20 percent of registered voters cast ballots in midterm House of Representatives races last year—a huge leap from 2014’s turnout rate of 13.7 percent.
“Given that the average primary turnout is 12 to 15 percent, 12 to 15 percent of people dictate most of our policies on the left or the right,” said Bradley Tusk, the startup-consultant-turned-philanthropist who is supporting the pilots, which are administered by the Boston-based technology company Voatz. “How do you get turnout to 60 or 70 percent?”
In his work in 2011 as an early-stage Uber consultant, Tusk thinks he found one answer: Let people vote on their phones. When Uber wanted cities to legalize ridehailing, the company asked riders and drivers to indicate their support via texts and online petitions. They did, in vast numbers, and the rest is history.
“If you want to change the outputs, you’ve got to change the inputs,” Tusk said. “Everybody has technology in their pocket.” Tusk Philanthropies—funded in part by the equity Tusk was given by Uber as payment for that consulting work—has covered the costs of administering and auditing each Voatz election so far.
When Utah County, population 60,000, presented its proposal to the state to be the next Voatz site, Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox said he was intrigued. With its significant population of internationally based military officers and missionaries who vote absentee, Utah has long been interested in online voting, but hadn’t cracked the key to doing it securely.
“You have to guarantee a private vote, and people have to be able to vote anonymously and that, by definition, makes it impossible to audit,” said Cox. “It’s not that someone actually has to hack an election. They just have to claim they did, and if you can’t claim otherwise, you’ve undermined the foundation of our democratic republic.”
Blockchain could unlock that potential by serving as an online database of transactions—in this case, votes—that are stored securely online. By logging the votes multiple times on multiple machines across what’s called a “distributed ledger,” election officials are able to verify that the votes haven’t been altered without having to tie the vote back to the voter.
“The purpose of doing this trial is to have a small, controlled group that we can monitor very closely, so we can ensure the integrity of the election,” said Cox. “We think we’ll see a significant increase in returned ballots.” In Utah County, 84 voters are eligible to vote overseas county-wide, and 53 of them are in jurisdictions with municipal elections this August. They’ll vote in local races in the cities of Eagle Mountain, Highland, Lehi, Mapleton, Orem, Pleasant Grove, Santaquin, and Springville, as well as for two city council seats in Provo.
Upon its launch last year, this experiment in digital democracy was received with a healthy dose of skepticism from cybersecurity experts and blockchain detractors. In The New Yorker, Sue Halpern summed up the spectrum of reactions to Tusk’s moonshot: It’s “either visionary or preposterous.” Voatz was ridiculed as “the Theranos of voting.”
Mobile voting isn’t without precedent. In Moscow, Estonia, and the Japanese city of Tsukuba, citizens can vote online for certain policies and municipal projects. And early results from West Virginia and Denver’s pilots seem to indicate that American voters have been impressed with the process. After a small trial run of 13 voters, West Virginia expanded mobile voting for its November 2018 general election, during which 144 voters deployed in 30 countries cast their ballots through Voatz.
In Denver, more than 100 voters opted in. According to a post-election survey administered by the Denver Elections Division, 100 percent of respondents who used Voatz preferred the mobile method over faxed, emailed, or snail-mailed ballots. When asked to rank how secure they felt their submissions were, the average rating was close to a nine. Most striking was the change in turnout among overseas voters: Since Denver’s 2015 election, it had doubled.
If expanding access and convenience are the primary goals, there’s evidence that Voatz delivers. But the concerns over security remain. Joseph Lorenzo Hall, a chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, criticized the project when it launched in West Virginia, telling CNN that logging ballots through voters’ “horribly secured” personal devices and networks makes the app a hackers’ dream. (In a statement, Voatz said it installs technology that detects and rejects corrupted phones.) Hall’s assessment hasn’t changed since.
“[T]his is an unfortunate distraction in election cybersecurity when we should be spending time on much more mundane but serious issues,” Hall told CityLab in an email. “Blockchain voting from Tusk or Voatz will do nothing to address the very real threats the 2020 election cycle faces … and I fear that it can only introduce more sources of vulnerabilities that only apply to some of the hardest-to-serve voters that are overseas.”
David Dill, a computer science professor emeritus at Stanford University, doesn’t think building a truly secure online voting network is impossible—but it would be unprecedented. “What they’re up against is basically 20 years of all of the top computer scientists in the country—and in some other countries—saying that the technology does not exist to solve this problem,” he said.
While Hall point to the threat of third-party interference, Dill raises another issue: trusting a private company to administer an election. “How do you know that your vote wasn’t reported to somebody else or to the company before your name was removed from it?” he said. The problem is “making sure the ballot doesn’t get changed … in between the voter’s fingers and when it gets counted.”
Tusk emphasizes that voters can personally audit their votes by making sure the ballot they cast matches the one on a printed digital receipt coded with a unique, anonymous voter ID. Four independent security audits were conducted during the West Virginia and Denver pilots, and no interference or corruption was detected. “Compared to the way we currently vote, this approach is exponentially safer,” Tusk Philanthropies said in a statement.
To verify the voter’s identities, the app gathers fingerprint and face scans; the latter images are then run through facial recognition software and cross-referenced with a picture of the voter’s driver’s license. This facial recognition dimension opens up its own can of worms: The technology has been banned in three cities and awaits judgement in many others. Civil rights advocates have criticized its potential to introduce policing biases and endanger immigrant communities.
So far, each jurisdiction has opted into facial recognition as the default verification method, but Tusk says others could easily ask to rely solely on fingerprint recognition or another biometric solution instead.
And he insists that efforts to delegitimize the concept of mobile voting obscure the broader goal of making democracy work for everyone. “When they suppress black voters in the South, they don’t say it’s because they don’t want people who are black to vote,” he said. “They say, ‘Elections aren’t secure.’”
After Utah County, Tusk hopes to partner with five or six more jurisdictions in time for the 2020 primaries and expanding the base of eligible voters, depending on local needs. One pool of potential new users: voters who are visually impaired. Or voters in rural areas who must travel long distances to the nearest polling location—an issue of growing concern in rural parts of states like Georgia, which has been consolidating and closing voting precincts in predominantly African American counties.
The idea, he says, is not necessarily to deploy Voatz nationwide, but to help ignite a digital-voting movement that boosts political participation. “I’m doing this because … I don’t see how democracy in the country survives if we fundamentally can’t resolve any difficult issue,” he said. “There’s just not the popular will to resolve any of it, because the popular will doesn’t manifest in primaries, which is where it really matters.”