State looks to expand mobile voting for military serving overseas

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia aims this fall to expand a mobile voting pilot program intended to give military personnel serving overseas a say at the ballot box.

Monongalia and Harrison counties were the first two to participate, during the May primary. Secretary of state’s office spokesman Mike Queen said — in email exchanges and phone conversations — they hope to have 10 more counties on board for the November election.

“We should know in two weeks which counties would like to offer the mobile app as an option to the traditional absentee paper ballot process,” he said. “Even if a county does offer the application, it does not mean that all military voters from that county have to use it. They can opt to stay with the paper ballot absentee if they prefer.”

Because of certain federal regulations, Queen was not at liberty to give specific numbers of participants in the pilot program. He was allowed to say fewer than 20 participated and they voted from seven countries.

Nationwide he said, the military branches identified more than 200,000 active members who wanted to vote but were unable to turn in their ballots for lack of access to reliable mail or a fax machine.

This effort could open the door for them, he said. Secretary of State Mac Warner isn’t looking to replace the state’s entire voting system, but only to give active military personnel access to voting.

Several mobile voting platforms are available, but West Virginia is working with a company called Voatz, based in Massachusetts.

Voatz explains that it employs two types of security to protect the validity of the votes cast. One is biometric identification via the smartphone: Thumbprint and facial recognition.

The other is a type of technology called “blockchain,” employed by financial and healthcare institutions. The most prominent user is Bitcoin, although Voatz is different in requiring voters to be validated by their state or county clerks before voting.

Blockchain is technically complex, but Voatz explains that it is sometimes called “distributed ledger technology” because it operates like a paper or single-computer financial ledger but is distributed across multiple, geographically-separated servers called “verifiers” because their function is to verify the authenticity of the blocks (collection of votes) before they are added to the blockchain.

“Once a block is verified and added to the collection of previous blocks — the blockchain — the votes are copied to each verifying server and cannot be changed.”

Voatz technology works only on iPhone 5s or newer, and Android handsets from 2016 or newer.

Following the pilot, four third-party technology firms audited the system’s security, Queen said. “All of those audits were completed and demonstrated the success, reliability and security of the Voatz mobile platform.”

Voatz adds, “The Voatz platform goes to significant lengths to prevent a vote from being submitted if a device is compromised.”

To date, Voatz said, it has conducted more than 30 pilot elections – from state party conventions to student government elections – handling more than 75,000 votes. Each pilot is a learning experience. One pilot in Utah failed because Voatz couldn’t handle the volume of voters who simultaneously tried to download the app and get verified in a single 30-minute window.

“As with the implementation of all new election technologies, the implementation of mobile voting will be a process,” Voatz says in its website post about the West Virginia pilot. “It is not something that can, nor that we want to, happen overnight. … We applaud the State of West Virginia for leading the charge in making voting more convenient for military personnel, their families, and for citizens living overseas. We are proud to be their partner.”

Mac Warner’s son, Scott, is serving overseas and obtained permission to vote via Voatz and to release his name. He was the first in the May pilot to vote, Queen said.

Mon County Clerk Carye Blaney said Mon first participated in an online, web-based (not the same as mobile phone voting) voting pilot in 2010. It served UOCAVA voters – the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act for are active military and members of the Merchant Marine, the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, their eligible family members, and U.S. citizens residing outside the U.S.

The state Legislature OK’d the pilot, she said. It was successful and she was hoping the Legislature would open the process to all absentee voters, but there was no follow-up action.

So when Warner started working with Voatz, she said, “We were happy to participate in the pilot.”

Eleven people participated and have given positive feedback, she said. “I think it was successful.”

The Voatz interface does have some issues to address regarding typesetting, display and graphics that would make it more user-friendly and engaging.

The Dominion Post attempted to contact some WVU experts who might be able to address technology and security questions, but none could be reached in time for this report.

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