West Virginia backtracks on using smartphone voting app in state primary

Voters with disabilities will instead be able to use a system that prints out their completed ballot, which they can then mail in.
Image: West Virginia vote
People use electronic voting machines to cast their ballot on Nov. 6, 2018.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Kevin Collier

In a surprise turnaround, residents with disabilities in West Virginia won’t be voting with their smartphones in the state’s primary in May. Instead, they'll be able to use a system that prints out their completed ballot, which they can then mail in.

Friday afternoon, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner announced that disabled and overseas voters will be able to use a service by Democracy Live, which lets users log in to fill out a ballot online or print one and mail it in.

It’s a sudden pivot from the state’s embrace of Voatz, a smartphone app that aimed to boost turnout by letting people vote from their phones but that has been heavily criticized by cybersecurity experts.

A handful of counties across the U.S. have offered Voatz to overseas and military voters in federal elections, as the city of Denver did in its 2019 mayoral election.

But West Virginia offered it to counties statewide. On Feb. 5, the state passed a law requiring its counties to give voters with disabilities the option of receiving ballots electronically, starting with the May 12 primary.

Voatz was the likely choice: The company had even completed a signed Memorandum of Understanding, acquired by NBC News through a Freedom of Information Act Request, to provide voting services for the state in 2020.

But longstanding tensions with cybersecurity experts, which came to a head with a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology audit that presented evidence of multiple flaws, prompted fears among state leaders that worries about Voatz’s security could hurt voter confidence. Voatz has commissioned several independent security audits, but has issued only their own company summaries of some, and not the audits themselves.

“If the public doesn’t want it, or is skeptical to the point they’re not confident in the results, we have to take that into consideration,” Donald “Deak” Kersey, Warner’s general counsel, said.

Democracy Live — whose government pilot elections, as are Voatz, are funded by entrepreneur Bradley Tusk — is already an option for overseas and disabled voters in the state of Washington, as well as in a number of counties in California and Ohio.

It asks eligible voters to sign into an Amazon Web Services portal with their name and a handful of personally identifying information, like their date of birth. They then can choose to either mark their ballot online or print it out unmarked, then sign and physically mail it. Voters are verified by trained local election officials who compare signatures, as is already the case with conventional mail-in overseas ballots.

While election cybersecurity experts praised the state for pivoting from Voatz, they also cautioned that no online system is free from potential tampering.

Matt Blaze, a Georgetown computer scientist and longstanding Voatz critic, praised West Virginia for moving away from the app but cautioned against reliance on the internet for any aspect of the voting process.

“To the extent that it’s an online voting system, it needs to be approached with extreme caution,” Blaze said.

Maurice Turner, an election cybersecurity expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group, warned of the possibility that a bad actor could fake easily accessible personal information to spam local election officials with other people’s ballots, even if their signatures wouldn’t withstand scrutiny.

No one has spammed Democracy Live with such fake ballots to date, said Bryan Finney, Democracy Live’s founder.

Voatz could still be West Virginia's choice in the general election in November if it inspires more confidence in its cybersecurity, Kersey said.

"If the security community comes out and says you've answered these questions, they'll be an option," he said.

CORRECTION (Feb. 28, 2020, 7:25 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the first name of the entrepreneur behind Voatz. He is Bradley Tusk, not Raymond.

CORRECTION (March 2, 2020, 1:56:p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated Bradley Tusk's relationship with Democracy Live and Voatz. He has provided financial support to governments who have used the two vendors in their pilot programs, not the organizations themselves.