Everything around us is changing dramatically but one thing has remained stubbornly unchanged: the use of ballot paper to cast votes. While software-driven electronic voting machines have been in use, ballot papers have prevailed. The reason? Security.
Academics and innovators have tried to popularize online voting but numerous instances of hacking have prevented widespread acceptance.
Boston-based startup Voatz has pieced together a solution.
The company aims to leverage smartphones and blockchains to not only thwart voting fraud but also make it easier for people to vote. And there are a number of unseen benefits, too, such as reducing the amount of taxpayers’ money spent on elections and bringing in more transparency.
Founded in 2014 and part of the YNext Incubator class of 2015, the startup recently clinched a $2.2 million Seed A funding led by Medici Ventures.
The 21st Century Vote
For many citizens, voting can be the only opportunity to participate in democracy. Yet, studies have shown a declining voter turnout in elections. While startups like BallotReady recognize lack of candidate information as an issue and are tackling it, Voatz believes that the time taken to vote is one of the major problems. For example, during the 2016 Presidential elections, media reported about the hundreds of people who spent hours waiting in lines, some stretching for miles, to cast their vote. At a time when there is distrust and lack of engagement in politics, a serpentine queue can serve as the final trigger to withdraw from the voting process.
Can, then, online voting or voting through smartphone bring in more votes? Data remains inconclusive but for Voatz which has governments, universities and private-sector organizations as clients, it’s worth a shot.
To vote through Voatz, a person has to download the app, register through a government-issued identification card, get verified by using fingerprint, facial recognition or retinal scan, and vote.
However, Voatz is not the first company to start online voting. It has many competitors from companies like OpaVote, Smartmatic, Everyone Counts, among others but the Boston startup’s co-founder and CEO Nimit Sawhney believes that its blockchain technology sets it apart.
Using the blockchain technology, Voatz can automatically maintain votes and preserve voter anonymity. The startup’s white paper, written with another Govtech startup Clear Ballot, discusses how, “a mobile voting channel, based on the smartphone and secured by the blockchain is fundamentally different than touchscreen or online voting.”
It further explains: The blockchain is a ledger that runs on distributed servers. Election jurisdictions start the process by crediting each voter with secure tokens that have a one-to-one correspondence to the ovals that voter would have received on a paper ballot. The voter makes selections on an app on their smartphone; overvotes are pre- vented. Once submitted, the vote is verified and confirmed by the distributed servers. Upon verification, the vote is debited (i.e. subtracted) from the voter’s ledger and credited (i.e. added) to the candidate’s ledger.
Apart from the blockchain technology, Voatz has been able to implement this idea because of the increasing usage of smartphones. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly three-quarters of Americans (77%) now own a smartphone. Like with books or media, it is not far-fetched to imagine replacing a paper ballot with a smartphone.
But will a typically risk-averse government adopt online voting? In Voatz’s experience – although in a limited way – it already has.
The government of West Virginia allowed deployed military voters, spouses and their dependents to vote online for the primary elections in March. But it wasn’t as easy as one would imagine and was definitely not just a click of the button. To qualify for the program, the office of the West Virginia Secretary of State announced “an overseas military voter, spouse or dependent must first apply for the special absentee status by submitting a Federal Post Card Application (FPCA)”. Only when the voter’s FPCA card was confirmed, did s/he receive instructions about the application. They then had to download the app, confirm their identity, and vote.
A voter, Scott Warner, said, “When the ballot was made available, I just clicked through the names of the candidates. I hit ‘vote’ for the candidates I wanted to support. Then I used the thumbprint Touch ID on my phone to verify who I was. That was it. Pretty slick!” It is unclear how Voatz verifies each user’s biometric details. But if you’re concerned about data, Sawhney, while talking about the app’s blockchain-enabled security said, “Just like Apple tokenizes (sic) your credit card, we tokenize your identity… and delete all the documents you’ve provided.”
Voatz’s other client is the University of South Florida. Sawhney says that even though university online voting doesn’t require a high level of security, they started with universities to “get the right demographic to the platform”. He believes that the app’s approach at the moment is “hyperlocal” and doesn’t imagine that “it would be used in the 2020 Presidential elections”. To that effect, Voatz is concentrating on expanding its service to corporates, universities, and other small organizations. The University of South Florida, for example, held its elections for senators, the student body president and any referenda placed on the ballot using the Voatz platform.
Nimit Sawhney, Co-Founder and CEO of Voatz,
While no information about Voatz’s revenue is available, the University’s student newspaper mentions that their one-year contract with Voatz costed them $5,500. However, if the university “chooses to continue using Voatz in subsequent years the cost would drop to $4,000”.
Voting online and anonymizing and securing that vote through blockchain technology is undoubtedly a smart investment. If not encourage more people to vote, it can enable those voters who are mobilized to vote but cannot be physically present at the polling booth. It could make the entire voting process more transparent, efficient and inexpensive as compared to other single-purpose, fallible voting devices.