Can Blockchain Improve U.S. Elections?

In a first of its kind, West Virginia will become the first state to allow digital voting by blockchain. If this pilot is successful, could it be the key to solving current barriers to voting such as mobile-impaired seniors or workers who can't take leave on election day? What impact would this have on future elections?

By Scott Simone, Contributor

In late March, Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Warner, currently deployed overseas in Italy, pulled up an app on his iPhone. He snapped a photo of his military ID, then a selfie. After the app authenticated it was indeed Warner, a ballot for his home state of West Virginia appeared.

“I just clicked through the names of the candidates, hit ‘vote’ for the candidates I wanted to support, then I used the thumb print touch ID on my phone to verify who I was,” Warner explained. “That was it.”

Just like that, Warner, the son of West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, became the first active user of the state’s mobile voting application—and the first U.S. citizen to ever cast a vote via blockchain.

That’s because West Virginia is the first-ever state to use blockchain technology for an election. As part of a pilot project, a small number of deployed, registered, and qualified military voters—from only two counties, Harrison County and Monongalia County—were able to cast official ballots for the state’s May 8th primary election via the blockchain app.

The votes were tallied into the official vote count, but as of yet, the state is opting not to release any figures or data from the pilot project. “Although it appears as if everything went well…we have a third party audit process that we want to finish before we make any formal or official comments,” said Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff for the Secretary of State’s office.

A Public And Private Venture

The pilot came about as a partnership between West Virginia; Voatz, a Boston-based startup; Tusk-Montgomery Philanthropies; New America; and the Blockchain Trust Accelerator.

Tusk-Montgomery, who is bankrolling the project, has been actively trying to make mobile technology a key tool for voters for the past two years. “We started doing some research into mobile voting, and I kept hearing about blockhcain and how that could be a great technology because it’s auditable, you can have authentication, and anonymity of the vote—all the things you’d need,” said Sheila Nix, president of Tusk-Montgomery.

“We started doing some research into mobile voting, and I kept hearing about blockchain and how that could be a great technology because it’s auditable, you can have authentication, and anonymity of the vote—all the things you’d need,”

– Sheila Nix, president of Tusk-Montgomery

Nix, during her work as chief of staff to Dr. Jill Biden and as a deputy assistant to President Obama, “kept hearing from service members that it’s very difficult to vote when they were deployed—and it seemed like the perfect group to help.”

So she actively sought states willing to test out blockchain technology to make it easier for service members to vote. Under current conditions, deployed service members (outside of the two pilot West Virginia counties) have to receive, print, and either fax or mail their ballot to cast a vote.

West Virginia officials—especially Secretary of State Warner, himself a veteran and whose children have all served—were receptive to the idea.

“This is aimed at fixing the problem for our military who are on that submarine, who don’t have a printer, who don’t have access to the U.S. Postal Service—who don’t have the ability to receive and return a ballot within the time period prescribed by law,” said West Virginia Elections Director Deak Kersey. “All this requires is a secure connection to the internet, and most service men and women have access through their cell phones.”

Kersey sees this as a chance to give a larger voice to those serving overseas. “We have a problem with military turnout—in the 2016 election, the figure was nine percent of active military actually voted,” Kersey said. “If you bring that number up to regular turnout—which for us is about 50 to 65 percent—who knows how many elections could’ve gone differently.”

For West Virginia officials, who back in 2010 tested a web-based remote military voting pilot with five counties, blockchain offered the ultimate technological key.

“We were really impressed with the hyper-ledger, the blockchain technology,” said Dave Tackett, the Secretary of State office’s chief information officer. “There’s a certificate key that goes towards preventing a man-in-the-middle attack, so the app is smart enough on the front-end, so that if someone were to try an attack, that session would be killed.”

“If ever there was a disruption somewhere in the chain by someone who wasn’t granted access to it,” said Kersey, “then there would be a cascading effect that would cause the data to fall apart and everyone within that blockchain, especially the administrator, would know someone tried to penetrate it, and could stop it.”

For Tackett, “you can’t have over-kill” when it comes to security in election technology. “This is an advanced technology that’s used in the financial sector, in accounting, so why not overlay it into the election system?”

Small Pilot, Grand Implications

As a precaution, the pilot was specifically kept to a small group. “We were hoping for a small number of voters to participate in this because we don’t want to risk the integrity of any election over a new pilot project,” said Kersey. “After this we’ll do an audit, and make sure there weren’t any issues in the blockchain itself. We’re looking for a third party that’s completely uninterested, completely unbiased. They’ll look into whether there were any loopholes, and whether they were exploited or not.”

After evaluating the pilot, West Virginia plans to roll this out to all 55 counties during the general election in November, but will still only make it available to active military voters.

While the state currently plans to only deploy blockchain tech to military voters, Tusk-Montgomery’s plans are a bit more grand-scale. As Nix sees it, current barriers to voting—everything from Election Day being held during working hours on a weekday to mobility issues for seniors—prevents the majority of people from actively participating in elections. A reliable, tamper-proof mobile app that would hold up to election scrutiny—something now possible with blockchain technology—would make it easier, and therefore more likely, for more people to vote.

“How our voting system is currently structured, politicians aren’t really representing the middle, and it’s not their fault, it’s how the system’s set up,” Nix explained. She acknowledges that while it’s not going to happen overnight, perhaps if more people get involved, more people vote in the primaries and therefore more ideas are expressed—and maybe we get to a place where we are solving long-term issues.

“We think if it becomes easier for people to vote, more people would vote over time.”