Utah to test out smartphone ballots with absentee voters

Experts in voting integrity and technology have raised security and practical concerns about the plan.
Image: polling stations
People vote at electronic polling stations in Huntington Beach, California, on Nov. 6, 2018.Mike Blake / Reuters

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By Ben Popken

Some votes for the next president could be cast using smartphones and blockchain technology if an ambitious project gains traction. But experts in voting integrity and technology are raising security and practical concerns about the plan.

For its upcoming municipal elections in August, a Utah county will become the third U.S. jurisdiction to cast some absentee votes using a new mobile phone voting system that combines a version of blockchain software for preserving data with remote identity verification.

The initiative, a collaboration between tech and politics-focused nonprofit Tusk Philanthropies, voting technology startup Voatz, and the nonprofit National Cybersecurity Center, will be a test pilot for approximately 58 overseas voters, including active-duty military and religious missionaries. Traditionally, these voters have extra obstacles to casting their vote, sometimes resorting to faxing in their absentee ballots.

If the trial run goes well, it may be expanded to absentee voters in other Utah counties in future elections -- including one with higher stakes, Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox told NBC News.

“We will look very hard at doing it for presidential and state elections,” said Cox, who predicted a “significant increase” in returned ballots due to the technology’s ease and flexibility.

Some of the newer electronic methods for administering elections have been met with growing skepticism from security experts who say that paper ballots remain the most secure way to count votes. On Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a bipartisan report on Russian election interference, noting that aging voting machines without a paper trail were vulnerable.

"States should resist pushes for online voting," the report read. Even though states should take every step to ensure deployed military can vote, "no system of online voting has yet established itself as secure."

The Voatz system allows voters to use iPhones or Android-based smartphones and tap the screen to cast their vote through an app called Voatz, which was developed by a private Boston-based mobile elections technology company. The system authenticates a voter’s identity by scanning their fingerprints and government-issued ID, and then submitting a sort of “video selfie.” After the ballot is received, election officials email the voter a PDF copy so the voter can check it was correctly recorded.

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“I just want to radically increase turnout,” said Bradley Tusk, a former consultant for Uber and founder of Tusk Philanthropies, which is funding the test in Utah. The organization also funded the pilot programs that have previously run in Colorado and West Virginia. “60 to 70 percent of people have smartphones.”

Tusk’s main goal is to get voters able to vote by phone, which he believes lowers barriers to voting, whether its running out of time or running into restrictions.

The ubiquity of smartphones and the development of new software has spurred some optimism around next-generation voting systems that could make casting ballots as easy as voting in “American Idol.” But election technology and integrity watchdogs caution there are issues with both “i-voting” in general and the Voatz system in particular.

"Verified Voting is concerned any time voted materials are sent over the internet because that provides an opportunity for anyone in the world to interfere with those votes,” Marian K. Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a non-partisan non-profit that advocates improvements to voting equipment and systems, told NBC News in an emailed statement. “Voatz does not appear to have a mechanism to detect whether the voter's intent was correctly captured or recorded, despite claims of having high levels of security.”

One of the selling points of blockchain software technology is that it uses numerous computers each contributing to a shared ledger that no single source can change or add to. That can make it much more difficult to hack than a traditional electronic database.

But election technologists aren’t overly impressed with Voatz’s implementation. According to the developer, the app combines "mobile voting" and blockchain, using the distributed ledger as a “final step” “storage” solution,” a method that is “important to distinguish from ‘blockchain voting.’”

“They’re just nibbling around the edges of the many security problems with i-voting,” said John Sebes, co-founder of the Open Source Election Technology Institute (OSET), a nonprofit that conducts election technology research. NBC News has collaborated with the OSET Institute since 2016 to monitor U.S. election-technology and voting issues.

“They’re really just using blockchain for pixie-dust value.”

Balderston said the voter receipt, tabulated ballot, and stored blockchain records offered sufficient assurances.

Other issues include handing one’s personally identifiable information to a private company, even temporarily (Voatz says it deletes photo ID and facial scans quickly after they’re sent, and biometric information never leaves the user device). State election law also requires states to own and operate their own election technology infrastructure. Expanding the use of Voatz or other similar systems would require rewriting laws.

There have been several experiments since the 1980s to provide electronic ballot casting to overseas voters but none has gained widespread adoption.

No research has shown that remote electronic voting methods demonstrably increased turnout compared to other convenience solutions, said Sebes. There is an alternative to going to a polling place on election day that does work: voting by mail. One commissioned study found it increased turnout by 3.3 percent, mainly by younger votes, enough to affect an election.

Tusk says he’s not beholden to any provider or technology, and hopes data from the test pilot will “let the genie out of the bottle and show people what it can be.”

And, taking a page from what worked for Uber, stimulate enough demand in users that they start bugging their elected officials to rewrite the necessary laws.

“When you have small turnouts where only a small group votes then you have an unstable democracy,” said Tusk. “If you want a government that works you’ve got to change something.”