Online Voting Trial with Blockchain: Academics Say Yes

Mobile Voting

The BBC reported the Scottish Government is being urged to undertake trials of online voting. A group of thirty academics and non-profit leaders said online voting could lead to “modern democracy”. I could not agree more, as I wrote in Election Attitude – How Internet Voting Leads to a Stronger Democracy. The group of thirty acknowledged security must be assured, but suggested online voting would make elections “more efficient, more accessible and more engaging”. Pursuing the trials could allow Scotland to “lead the way in democratic reform and pave the way for the rest of the world”. This is exactly the election attitude we need, and I hope Scotland gets the trials going.

The BBC quoted Areeq Chowdhury, Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy, as saying: “Online voting has the potential to dismantle barriers to an independent and secret ballot for many voters with disabilities and vision impairments, as well as British citizens overseas including many members of our Armed Forces. For the younger generations, online voting presents a method of voting that meets the expectations of the digital age. We are pleased to see the Scottish Government explore this reform and hope they can lead the way by undertaking pilots of this important and exciting reform to our democracy.” Bravo.

The recommendations to the Scotish government urge it to tackle security issues through pilot schemes rather than avoiding online technology altogether, which, unfortunately, is the approach being taken by nearly all U.S. states. The recommenders believe, as I do, failing to master the technology and address needed enhancements is disenfranchising millions of people who cannot get to the polls. 

In the United States, election officials have been frightened by Russian hacking, and are, defensively, generally moving towared paper-based systems, which have their own set of security and privacy issues. However, one innovative state, West Virginia, has become the first to allow Internet voting by blockchain as I advocated in Election Attitude. The state plans to offer online voting to overseas military service members and their families. The pilot will be offered in two counties. This is exactly the right way to do it. Think Big, Act Bold, Start Simple, Iterate Fast. If it goes well in the May primary, the state hopes to allow all eligible West Virginia military voters to vote online during the November general elections. If other states follow, there could be millions of military and expatriate voters enfranchised.

The technology will be supplied by Boston based blockchain voting startup Voatz. The startup has raised $2.2 million in venture capital funding, and a philanthropist is helping fund the pilot. Voatz technology works by recording votes on an Internet blockchain, much like bitcoin is stored on a blockchain. The voter’s identity is verified using biometric tools like Touch ID or Face ID using a mobile device. Voters will be able to vote from anywhere in the world, and verify their vote was recorded. This will be far superior to the old-fashioned paper-base absentee ballots which often get lost in the mail or arrive after the voting cutoff date.

West Virginia has a history of being progressive about the use of technology. In 2010, then Secretary of State Natalie Tennant supported an Internet voting pilot for 125 West Virginia military and overseas citizens from eight counties. She said the number of voters represented a 162 percent increase over the participation in the 2010 primary. The 76 percent online-vote return rate far exceeded the average 58 percent absentee ballot return rate experienced by counties using standard mail as the ballot transmission method.

Natalie Tennant has a solid election attitude. Unfortunately, since 2010, the state has encountered financial declines, and Secretary Tennant was not re-elected in 2016. The new Secretary of State and Chief Elections Officer is Mac Warner. He has election attitude. I hope other states will follow this great example and begin Internet voting pilots using mobile devices and blockchain technology. It can lead to a stronger democracy. Let us not forget the 100 million people who could have voted in 2016, but did not because they could not navigate our 150 year-old voting system.

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