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.
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.
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.
Afraid of the Blockchain?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
of the Future
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.
already being done elsewhere. From Switzerland
, 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.