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America’s First Partially Blockchain-Based Election Takes Place In West Virginia




West Virginian officials are conducting an audit of a recent voting exercise – the first in a US election to record votes using blockchain technology.

On the evening of May 8, polls closed in West Virginia's primary election, marking the conclusion of the first government-run, blockchain-mediated vote in the history of the United States.

Speaking to ETHNews the following morning, Mike Queen, communications director for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, said his office believes that "blockchain does provide a heightened level of security on this type of mobile voting app." He went on to say, "We're genuinely hoping that will allow this type of a mobile app to be made available in the future – as early perhaps as our general election – to military voters."

Relatively few voters were expected to take part in the trial, which was limited to deployed military members and other Americans eligible to vote absentee under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), as well as their spouses and dependents. Participation was further restricted to voters registered in two of the state's 55 counties: Harrison and Monongalia.

Pending an audit of the voting exercise, Warner may move to roll the system out to all UOCAVA voters registered in West Virginia for the general election this November. 

The audit will be conducted by employees of Voatz, the company behind the voting system, the clerks representing Harrison and Monongalia counties, and possibly other parties. According to Queen, Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist who has been described as a sharing economy "lobbyist" and who had arranged to pay Voatz the roughly $150,000 it was charging to conduct the exercise, will also participate in the review process, though it's unclear whether he will contribute to the audit itself. IT and cybersecurity personnel with the state of West Virginia will review the audit's findings as well.

While Warner is free to recommend the system's statewide implementation, Queen predicted that the secretary of state would only do so if, after the audit, other officials and stakeholders agree that the move is a prudent one. First and foremost, according to Queen, he will seek additional input from the Harrison and Monongalia county clerks.

Other parties invited to give feedback could include "interest groups here in West Virginia," county clerks from non-participating jurisdictions, the state's governor, and the Board of Public Works (a public corporation staffed by various elected state officials).

Queen, who also made a point of recognizing Elections Director Deak Kersey for his role in facilitating and organizing the project, said that he expects Warner to decide by "mid-July" on whether to expand the program.

According to the US Election Assistance Commission, over 200,000 UOCAVA ballots transmitted to voters (registered nationwide) in the 2016 general election were, for one reason or another, not returned. In Queen's view, if those hundreds of thousands of voters went through the trouble of requesting ballots in the first place, it's appropriate for the state to play a role in making it easier for them to participate in elections.

Despite enthusiasm within the Secretary of State's office, however, the trial faced some criticism. An article in the widely-read Charleston Gazette-Mail, written (as Queen pointed out) by an author from "outside of West Virginia," questioned whether a vote cast via the app could be "distorted before it's recorded."

Asked for his thoughts on the exercise, University of South Carolina computer science professor Duncan Buell noted a number of potential problems with electronic voting, and with Voatz's platform in particular.

He alleged that the facial-recognition and fingerprint-scanning technologies that the company uses to verify voters' identities could be vulnerable to hacking and described the Voatz-mediated election as "an instance of faith-based voting." By this, he meant that the public would be asked to trust in the fortitude of code that has not been reviewed by actors outside the company. In his estimation, relying on this code represents a partial transfer of authority from public elections officials to a private company.

Queen, for his part, remains hopeful about the system's prospects for use in future elections, saying, "We're very encouraged so far today and we believe that [blockchain-based voting] is a real viable option."

He also noted that there "are a lot of other states who are asking about this mobile voting solution and who are also interested in it."

On May 10, 2018, This article was corrected to better reflect the secretary of state's role in recommending the adoption of Voatz's system

Adam Reese

Adam Reese is a Los Angeles-based writer interested in technology, domestic and international politics, social issues, infrastructure and the arts. Adam holds value in Ether, Bitcoin, and Monero.

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