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Blockchain Voting Comes to America: West Virginia’s Voatz Experiment

The long-promised but yet unrealized potential for blockchain-based elections will take its next major step in West Virginia. In September, the state’s government announced that it will use a blockchain-based voting system for the general election coming this fall, a first in the United States. 

West Virginia, Voting and the Blockchain

If you seem to recall seeing headlines about West Virginia and blockchain elections previously, that’s probably because, back in May 2018, the state launched a pilot program in two counties that allowed citizens who were overseas or serving in the military to vote via a mobile app called Voatz, which was developed by a company in Boston. 

That primary election proceeded smoothly, making those West Virginian counties the first places in the U.S. where blockchain technology was used for official voting in some capacity. 

In November, West Virginia plans to achieve another first by allowing military service members and overseas voters from all of its counties to vote via Voatz in the general election. This will be a bigger test for the technology, not just because it applies to the whole state but because it’s a general election, which matters to most of us more than a primary. 

Who’s Afraid of the Blockchain? 

In announcing the initiative, the state government focused on the need to provide a voting solution for people who lack easy access to desktop computers, printers or scanners, which are sometimes necessary for using mail-in paper ballots. Many overseas voters, especially those on active duty with the military, lack access to these technologies, according to the state. By making it possible to vote via the Voatz mobile app (and presuming, apparently, that everyone has a smartphone), West Virginia hopes to make it easier for its citizens to vote, no matter where they are located. 

The blockchain part of the equation seems less important to the state government, which mentioned blockchain technology only briefly in announcing the plans to use Voatz for the general election.

For its part, Voatz also appears to be relatively tight-lipped about the role that a blockchain plays in its mobile voting app. The company doesn’t mention blockchain technology on its homepage. 

That may be because Voatz has been criticized for (among other things) creating a vote-recording system that, despite using a HyperLedger-based blockchain to store data, is centralized in most other respects, thereby undercutting most of the neutrality and independent-verifiability benefits that blockchain-based voting theoretically provides. The voting data passes through Voatz’s own servers, so it’s not really decentralized or fully transparent.

Although both West Virginia and Voatz (in its FAQ) assure voters that the Voatz system has been thoroughly vetted by “several independent and widely respected technology auditing companies,” it’s unclear for the most part who those companies are.

Voatz does use biometric features, namely facial recognition and fingerprinting, to verify that a voter is who he or she claims to be. That seems to be an effort to prevent the scourge of voter identity fraud (which has occurred approximately twice in West Virginia this century, according to the Heritage Foundation), but it would appear to do little to guarantee that votes are recorded fairly and that voting data is not manipulated. (And, critically, recording data on a blockchain does not magically make that data immune to the various exploits that can potentially undermine blockchain security.)

A Taste of the Future

Given all of the above, it’s a safe bet that blockchain-based voting in the United States isn’t going to end with West Virginia. Despite the potential flaws in the current system, there remains tremendous political pressure to build voting systems that are more resistant to fraud and easier to access than those that are typically used today. When leveraged in the right way, blockchain technology can be part of those solutions. 

It’s already being done elsewhere. From Switzerland

to Japan, blockchain-based voting systems are becoming a real-world solution for government elections.

We’ll be closely watching what happens in the elections in West Virginia this November. While this particular implementation of blockchain-based voting may be imperfect, it’s a sign of things to come and an opportunity to learn how to build blockchain election systems that are truly decentralized and fraud resistant.

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