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[UPDATED] Some West Virginians Overseas Can Vote In Midterm Elections Via Blockchain App




After conducting a pilot for a blockchain voting platform during West Virginia’s primary election, Secretary of State Mac Warner wants to further test the technology through a second trial during the state’s general election this November.

UPDATED November 15, 2018:

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner recently announced that 144 West Virginians overseas, representing 19 counties and located in 31 different countries, voted in the 2018 general election using the Voatz app. Although some said the blockchain voting trial was successful, Warner indicated that he did not have plans to expand the program to domestic voters, according to a report from Government Technology magazine.

ORIGINAL | August 7, 2018:

Facilitating the voting process via blockchain technology is a well-known use case. The Swiss city of Zug, for example, recently trialed a blockchain-based voting platform.

However, many of the experiments with these voting mechanisms are not tied to governmental elections – and for good reason. Organizations and development teams want to minimize potential consequences, and official elections are certainly not a child's sandbox.

Enter West Virginia, which piloted its own blockchain voting platform during the state's primary election this past spring. Secretary of State Mac Warner partnered with Voatz – a mobile, blockchain-based voting app – to trial this new system among the residents of two counties who were deployed on military duty overseas (including spouses and dependents) and eligible to vote under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

Although participation through the platform was low (more absentee military voters from the selected two counties used paper ballots instead), the secretary of state sees potential in the technology. He wants to continue developing the blockchain-based voting process and plans on conducting a second test, this time during the general election in November.

The secretary of state's communications director, Mike Queen, told ETHNews that the decision to pursue this additional pilot was informed by four comprehensive technology audits, each completed by the Voatz team and other stakeholders following the state's primary election. He said that Secretary Warner's IT crew was satisfied with the audit results. "The audits have come back and shown that it is a safe, reliable option that does utilize some biometrics," he elaborated.

Because the second iteration of the blockchain trial would still be a pilot, Queen said not all 55 of the state's counties would participate. "We hope we can get 10 counties interested," he continued. Queen recognizes that the app is a work in progress, and as such, the secretary of state wants to ensure that the technology is safe and secure before rolling out a statewide program.

"Even though we have a paper receipt portion of the Voatz app, and it's developing, we're not convinced … that any technology is 100 percent safe," said Queen. "We're hoping that these test pilots will continue to build that confidence up."

Considering all the safety and security precautions required of the platform, the secretary of state wants to take the development process slowly. Queen stated:

"Secretary Warner is a very methodical, clear thinker. We're not sprinting to the finish line here. We're conducting a very methodical approach to finding a safe and secure solution to the challenge posed to us, and that was … the low voter participation by military men and women."

In fact, Queen denies that West Virginia is trying to be the first state to entirely rely on blockchain technology in an election. For now, the focus is on ensuring that the technology works properly, rather than ensuring that the platform is widely utilized. "If we have 100 voters, I think that would be successful," he noted.

Despite Secretary Warner's methodical approach, the pilot has received considerable flak. Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the Center for Democracy & Technology's chief technologist, said the Voatz platform was a "horrifically bad idea." Another critic, security architect Kevin Beaumont, recently tweeted that the blockchain-based voting system was "going to backfire."

Queen said the secretary of state takes comments like these seriously. Ultimately, they can help his team learn more about the platform and how to improve it, Queen explained:

"We hear what the anti-blockchain people are saying. We listen to what those who are opposed to what we're doing are saying very, very closely. Secretary Warner monitors it. He wants to know, 'What are people saying, and how do we address those concerns?' We're constantly on the phone because we're not IT people. We're in a learning process here."

Amid this flurry of criticism, Secretary Warner will continue to develop a voting system that he and his team believe is "the right thing" for the state's constituents. "We're trying to be a leader," Queen concluded.

Correction (11/16/2018): A November 16 press release from Secretary of State Mac Warner indicated that the number of countries represented in the voting trial was 31, not 30 as had been previously reported, and there were only 19 counties that had participated, not 24.

Dani Putney

Dani is a full-time writer for ETHNews. They received their bachelor's degree in English writing from the University of Nevada, Reno, where they also studied journalism and queer theory. In their free time, they write poetry, play the piano, and fangirl over fictional characters. They live with their partner, three dogs, and two cats in the middle of nowhere, Nevada.

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