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Rustam Panov
Rustam Panov

Utah County To Pilot Blockchain-based Mobile Voting

Disabled voters in Utah County will be able to use their smartphones to vote in the November municipal election, an expansion of an earlier pilot test of the blockchain-based technology and anothert step toward allowing all voters to cast ballots with a mobile device.

Utah County to pilot blockchain-based mobile voting

The county, which has more than a half million residents, is the third in the U.S. to partner with Tusk Philanthropies, a non-profit focused on expanding mobile voting nationally. The latest pilot is a collaboration between the Utah County Elections Division, Tusk Philanthropies, the National Cybersecurity Center and Boston-based voting app developer Voatz.

Utah County chose to expand the use of mobile voting after the National Cybersecurity Center (NCC) recently completed an audit of an August municipal primary election pilot that used the mobile voting app; the audit found that the results were accurate. Disabled voters will be able to use the app in upcoming municipal elections.

Utah County, which has 265,000 active registered voters, used the mobile voting app in a municipal election earlier this year for absentee military service members and their families living overseas. Only 45 voters took advantage of it, but the pilot went smoothly. This time around, Gardner expects there'll be dozens of disabled registered voters who'll be able to cast their votes through a smartphone to avoid having to go to a polling station.

To date, the Voatz mobile voting platform has been used in four public election pilots (and about 40 elections overall): the 2018 West Virginia Primary Elections; the 2018 West Virginia Midterm Elections; the 2019 City/County of Denver Municipal General Elections; and the 2019 City/County of Denver Municipal Runoff Elections.

Voatz is among a small community of mobile voting platforms using blockchain as a distributed voting system; other firms include Votem, SecureVote, and Scytl. While only a small number of vendors offer it, mobile voting is gaining the attention of municipal officials for its ease of use and purported privacy and security.

Right now in the state of Utah, marking a ballot electronically is only allowed for citizens who fall under the national Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Voting Act (UOCAVA), which covers overseas absentee voters and disabled voters. If Congress were to enable mobile balloting for all registered voters, Gardner said she'd still require a few more audited pilots before she'd agree to opening the technology up to the general citizenry.

ABI Research's Menting said many have argued against mobile and blockchain voting because it's not inherently safe and because there are too many "threat vectors, and unknowns, that could put the voting process in jeopardy.

"That is true to an extent, but so is paper-based voting," Menting said. "I would argue that mobile and blockchain technology notably can provide a number of additional security features that offer robust-enough security to ensure the voting process is as secure (if not more secure) than existing voting mechanisms, especially regarding insecurity of ballot counting machines and systems. So I do believe that blockchain voting is safe."

Of course, Menting added, any new technology initiatives, whether blockchain, mobile or otherwise, need to be continuously tested and verified to ensure they continue to meet the levels of security required in a voting setting.

According to the announcement, voting started on June 28 and continues till Election Day, August 13. The pilot voters include active-duty military, their eligible dependents and overseas voters, the report notes.

Utah County is the latest government entity to pilot a mobile voting application based on blockchain to allow military absentee voters and their family members living overseas to vote in an upcoming municipal primary election.

The county, which has more than a half million residents, is the third in the U.S. to partner with Tusk Philanthropies on a national effort to expand mobile voting. The pilot is a collaboration between the Utah County Elections Division, Tusk Philanthropies, the National Cybersecurity Center and Boston-based voting app developer Voatz.

Eligible voters will be able to participate in the upcoming election by opting in to vote electronically on their smartphones. Those using the mobile voting platform will fill out an absentee ballot request, complete their identity authentication and verification on the Voatz application, and submit their ballot for the election. Voting began June 28 and continues through 8 p.m. on Election Day, Aug. 13.

For federal and local elections, the Voatz blockchain-based mobile voting platform is only offered to active-duty military, their eligible dependents and other overseas voters using their smartphones. To date, the Voatz platform has been used in four public election pilots (and 40 elections overall): the 2018 West Virginia Primary Elections; the 2018 West Virginia Midterm Elections; the 2019 City/County of Denver Municipal General Elections; and the 2019 City/County of Denver Municipal Runoff Elections.

Michela Menting, digital security research director at UK-based ABI Research, said mobile voting applications have shortcomings involving both ease-of-use concerns and security fears. For one, not everyone has a top-end smartphone.

For Utah County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner, these barriers were unacceptable. After careful research, she and her team identified mobile voting as a solution for military, overseas civilians, and citizens with disabilities. With mobile voting, an eligible citizen can register for, complete, and submit their ballot all on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Recent pilots in West Virginia and Denver have shown that this technology increases voter engagement, offers more privacy, and is more secure than traditional electronic methods like email.

In 2020, a Utah County resident became the first person to cast a mobile vote in a U.S. presidential election. Over 200 Utah County voters were invited to use mobile voting, and 33% of invitees cast their ballot.

In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a new urgency to efforts to expand voting options. In response, Utah Senator Curtis S. Bramble and House Representative Mike Winder sponsored a bill called the Mobile Voting Pilot Project bill. The bill allows any Utah municipality to offer electronic and mobile voting, and gives municipal elections officers the ability to decide to whom, if, and how it should be offered. The bill is currently up for debate in the state Senate.

Some voters with disabilities will be able to cast their ballots on smart phones using blockchain technology for the first time in a U.S. election on Tuesday. But while election officials and mobile voting advocates say the technology has the potential to increase access to the ballot box, election technology experts are raising serious security concerns about the idea.

The mobile voting system, a collaboration between Boston-based tech company Voatz, nonprofit Tusk Philanthropies and the National Cybersecurity Center, has previously been used for some military and overseas voters during test pilots in West Virginia, Denver and Utah County, Utah. Now, Utah County is expanding its program to include voters with disabilities in its municipal general election as well. Two Oregon counties, Jackson and Umatilla, will also pilot the system for military and overseas voters on Tuesday.

Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner told members of the Government Operations Interim Committee that her county has been piloting just such a system, making it available to overseas voters, for the last two years with positive results.

Voatz is a for-profit, private mobile Internet voting application. The stated mission of Voatz is to "make voting not only more accessible and secure, but also more transparent, auditable and accountable."[1] The company is headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts.[2]

From March to May 2018, West Virginia implemented a temporary mobile voting solution for a series of pilot studies that recorded votes for deployed members of the military.[16] Core functionalities included, but were not limited to, the ability to spoil a ballot, post-election audits, and automatic "tabulatable" audits.[13] In order to run the applications, Voatz implemented minimum software and hardware requirements for participants. iPhone users needed to own an iPhone 5s or later with iOS 10+. Android users required a functioning Android OS version 6+ with KNOX support.[13]

In October 2020, a Utah resident became the first person to cast a vote for president in a U.S. general election via a blockchain-based voting app on a personal cellphone, according to Fox News.[23] GovTech reported that the vote in question was submitted in Utah County with the Voatz app, which has been piloted in a number of states, including West Virginia, Colorado and Oregon. Utah was the first state to hold a live demonstration of how Voatz ballots can be audited...Utah County started utilizing Voatz in 2019 to give military voters a more secure voting option than email. The county eventually allowed voters with disabilities to use the app in a local election.[24]

Voatz has received criticism from several security experts. Josh Benaloh, senior cryptographer at Microsoft Research, argues that Voatz's scheme is insecure and over complicated, stating that "blockchains just don't help".[30] Ron Rivest, a professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, supported Benaloh's conclusion regarding the privacy properties of mobile voting solutions in general, stating that "It could be that the program on your computer is secretly shipping your information off to a government agency and telling them how you voted."[30]

Voatz is a mobile phone application for ballot marking and the electronic return of voted ballots (internet voting). Voatz has been piloted in a handful of counties and in the state of New Jersey. In 2020, Voatz is only available to Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) voters and voters with disabilities in Utah County, Utah.




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