US midterms to see first use of digital voting in a federal election

Written by Sam Trendall on 15 August 2018 in News
News

Critics slam ‘horrific idea’ with serious security implications as some citizens of West Virginia will have the chance to vote via a smartphone in November poll

All 435 seats in the US House of Representatives – the chamber of which is pictured above – are up for grabs during the midterm elections

Later this year US citizens will, for the first time, be able to digitally cast their votes in a federal election.

In November’s midterm elections, counties in the state of West Virginia will have the option of offering remote phone-based voting to some registered voters currently living abroad or, in most cases, on military duty overseas, CNN reports. The rollout of the Voatz smarthphone app for use in a federal election follows trials of the technology in West Virginia’s Harrison and Monongalia county during primary elections that took place earlier this year to select candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties.

To vote via the app, voters must submit a photo of a government-issued form of ID and a short self-filmed video of their face. Voatz then reportedly uses facial-recognition software to verify users’ identity and approve them. Votes are cast anonymously, and are stored on a blockchain.


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Individual counties can choose whether or not to use Voatz in the midterm elections, and serving military personnel can still vote via a paper ballot, if they so wish.

West Virginia secretary of state Mac Warner defended the technology’s security credentials, CNN reported.

He said: “There is nobody that deserves the right to vote any more than the guys that are out there, and the women that are out there, putting their lives on the line for us.”

But many cybersecurity professionals have expressed strong concerns about the move to allow smartphone-based voting.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technology officer of the Center for Democracy & Technology, said: “Mobile voting is a horrific idea. It's internet voting on people's horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure, without a physical paper record of the vote.”

In a statement issued in light of receiving a large amount of criticism in this vein, Boston-based start-up Voatz said it was “thrilled our efforts to make mobile voting a reality are sparking an engaged conversation around the nation’s first mobile voting pilot in a federal election”.

The firm added: “In our three years as a company, more than 75,000 votes have been cast on our platform, and we’ve administered more than 30 pilot elections. With each election we’ve learned something new, and we will continue to take the time necessary to ensure that the voting process is secure for voters. As with the implementation of all new election technologies, the implementation of mobile voting will be a process. It is not something that can, nor that we want to, happen overnight.”

In addition to the pilot in the West Virginia primaries earlier this year, Voatz has also trialled its technology in environments such as “state party conventions and student government elections”. Its largest pilot to date involved the casting of more than 15,000 votes, the company said.

Although pilots of e-voting in the UK – involving five local council elections – were held as long ago as 2007, the prospect of further use of the technology in this country seems to have dampened in recent years. The Labour manifesto for the 2015 general election promised more trials of online voting if the party came to power – but this policy had been dropped by the time the 2017 election came around. However, speaking in late 2017, shadow digital minister Liam Byrne said the issue was “something we may look at next year”.

Various forms of online voting have been trialled or implemented in a number of countries across the world in recent years, most notably Estonia, where the technology has been in widespread use  for over a decade. The Estonian government claims that about 30% of the population now uses the country’s i-voting platform to vote in national elections.

All 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and about a third of the Senate’s 100 seats are up for grabs during midterm elections, which take place every four years.

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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