On November 6, West Virginia will allow members of the military serving overseas to vote for the midterm on their smartphones. They will be doing so via a mobile election voting platform, run via an app developed by Voatz, a Blockchain-enabled startup. The platform is secured through biometrics, and Voatz uses the Blockchain to record votes without the fear of manipulation. While this is a test and only some of the region’s 55 counties are choosing to opt-in, its results are primed to have an impact on how our country conducts elections in the future.
Voatz, a Boston-based company, claims on its website that it wants to turn every smartphone and tablet into a secure voting booth and usher in a new era of digital voting. Techweek had covered the company and its proposition for transforming voting into a virtual exercise. In the aftermath of the announcement of its involvement in the West Virginia midterms, the company has been subjected to even greater scrutiny that before. The question to ask remains the same – can Voatz use Blockchain to overcome security challenges and revolutionize how the world’s oldest modern democracy functions?
Is digital voting a good idea?
Nimit Sawhney, Voatz’s co-founder and CEO, is optimistic about the company’s chances. According to the company’s website, it was started in 2015 after the founders won a hackathon at SXSW with an idea which eventually grew into the Voatz digital voting platform. Today, the company claims to connect disenfranchised citizens irrespective of geography and socio-economic status..
The 12-person startup has worked on dozens of pilot elections and recorded 70,000 votes, including in primaries in two West Virginia counties which took place this May. Sawhney says that the combination of biometrics to authenticate a voter and the Blockchain ledger to store the digital votes make the system secure enough to potentially determine electoral winners and losers.
Hacked elections, Voatz, and naysayers
While historians differ on their definition, the US is widely considered the first modern democracy. If the US can successfully transition to secured voting across digital channels, it could initiate a revolution in voting across the world. However, the recent interference of Russia-backed hackers into the 2016 Presidential election puts Voatz or any other entity offering digital voting as a secure and scalable alternative to conventional voting under greater scrutiny than before. This is the most high profile test of Blockchain-based digital voting, especially since reports of Sierra Leone’s Presidential elections in May 2018 were erroneously reported as being run on the emerging technology. However, it seems that some would prefer if Voatz’s news was fake as well.
Techcrunch called Voatz a ‘terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea’ while coverage in Wired also rang some notes of caution. Both quoted experts in elections and data security who claimed that Voatz’s system isn’t, and could not become, absolutely secure given existing technologies and networks. Vanity Fair, TechCrunch, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Ars Technica, and Futurism have also covered the news. These articles express worry about exposing our elections to possible digital attacks, adopting a mostly cynical wait-and-watch approach. A scathing critique from the webcomic XKCD contributed to the air of doubt over the issue.
Reality, hype, and digital election security
In response, Voatz claims that its digital voting platform is entirely secure due to its use of biometrics to verify identity and Blockchain to ensure secure recording of votes. While there is consensus that the Blockchain is a technology with great security potential, many are convinced that absolute security is impossible in a digital system. Avi Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins, says that Voatz is as secure as voting on an internet-enabled computer, and using Blockchain doesn’t change that. Biometrics systems (including the facial recognition which Voatz uses) are also not foolproof, and there is some evidence out there that such systems might even have a racial bias.
The Voatz team is confident about the digital voting platform they have built, and the FAQ section of their website features details of a security audit conducted by ‘multiple, independent third parties’. Their credibility is further boosted by their recent completion of the 2017 Techstars and MassChallenge startup accelerator programs in Boston. Voatz’s digital voting platform has also been awarded the 2017 Harvard SECON Prize, the 2017 MassChallenge Gold Award, and the 2016 MIT Startup Spotlight Favorite Prize.
Voatz says that Blockchain and smartphones help it achieve accessibility and security that current election systems can’t match. Tamper-proof record keeping, identity verification, and proper auditing is made possible through the use of biometrics and a secure, immutable Blockchain. According to Voatz’s blog, its ‘permissioned’ Blockchain is built using the HyperLedger Blockchain framework, which requires verification before allowing access to voters and auditors. The Voatz team also points to having run 30+ successful pilots, and says that smartphones with the latest technology using their platform secured by the Blockchain is entirely secured.
Sawhney points to other checks – like a manual verification of IDs, and the use of a permissioned Blockchain system, with Voatz, election officials, nonprofit voting auditors, and politicians acting as verifiers. He thus contends that the chances of collusion to make the system vulnerable is, therefore, unlikely enough to be considered impossible. However, this raises other questions – if this digital voting system eventually relies on manual verification, is it serving any purpose? Can this system be kept secure and manageable at scale?
The future of voting is digital – but is Voatz already there?
On the other hand, a survey of US citizens from 2016 showed that 33% of respondents said they would be more likely to vote if they could do so over a smartphone. This is important for the US, as the voter turnout amongst young people (aged 18-29) was only 50% – 5.5 points lower than the national average. The rate of smartphone ownership was 94% of people ages 18-29, 89% of those ages 30-49, and 73% of those aged 50-64. If voting could ever be borne on the back of a ubiquitous technology, smartphones would be it. The national average of time taken to vote is 13.3 minutes, and Voatz could cut the entire process down to just a few moments, with no requirement to travel or queue up. In a world where convenience is key to gaining popular use, Voatz system has promise. Digital voting, if it can be secured, is of immense value.
Many people today are convinced that Voatz and West Virginia’s experiment with digital democracy will end badly. Others are convinced that the technology is the stage where with enough care, a secure digital system to collect votes can be designed. Better yet, Sawhney seems convinced the Voatz digital voting platform has already achieved this, and he will prove his point when the elections take place in the first week of November, 2018.
There is no doubt that making voting an easier and more accessible civic activity would be beneficial, and that Voatz’s underlying idea has the potential to accomplish this. Whether Voatz shall be the future of voting, or a company reaching in futility for the future remains to be seen.