Utah County Puts Blockchain Voting to Test in Live Audit

by Jed Pressgrove | September 9, 2019 AT 3:10 AM
Hand holding smart phone with online voting concept on screen.
(Shutterstock)

Utah County, Utah, recently showcased live on Facebook how anyone can audit the authenticity of 24 municipal election votes that were cast overseas by eligible voters through the blockchain-based Voatz app.

The demonstration, which can be viewed here, describes publicly available electronic documents and tools that one can use to confirm the validity of overseas votes.

This auditing process allows users to examine single blocks within a blockchain to retrieve encrypted information, which can then be decoded to verify whether political candidates are receiving the votes they’re supposed to from voters across the world.

Amelia Powers Gardner, Utah County clerk/auditor, introduced the presentation by explaining why Voatz was chosen as a way to ensure that soldiers and citizens traveling overseas have the option of a secure, anonymous vote. Through a research-intensive effort, her office has updated its “elections process from beginning to end.” One reason for this initiative was that Utah County did not want to see “four- and five-hour lines” as it did during the 2018 presidential election. More specifically, Gardner realized overseas voting required a substantial overhaul.

“We discovered that overseas voters vote primarily by email,” Gardner said. “This is not secure, and it waives their right to a secret ballot. As the county clerk, I believe that all citizens, regardless of where they reside, deserve a secure, safe and secret ballot.”

To illustrate the limitations of overseas voting, Gardner cited what she and Josh Daniels, chief deputy of the Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office, experienced as voters attempting to cast ballots while outside of the country. In Canada, Gardner missed out on the opportunity to vote in the general 2008 presidential election, while Daniels never got the chance to support his preferred candidate in the 2008 Republican primary as he served in the Marine Corps in Fallujah, Iraq.

Gardner then shared evidence of the potential of Voatz.

“One thing that we did not expect, that we are quite excited about: In this pilot there were 58 eligible voters in this very small municipal primary,” she said. “And typically, the voter turnout for overseas voters is quite low due to inaccessibility and reliance. However, in this election, we had 24 of those 58 eligible voters cast their vote — which means that we had a higher percentage of voter turnout for overseas voters than we did for voters residing right here in Utah County.”

But how does Voatz work, especially in a county that requires paper ballots from every voter? The app essentially turns one’s smartphone into a “ballot-marking device” that sends a digital receipt of a citizen’s votes to a ballot tabulation center. From there, the county’s system prints a document that is a replica of the digital receipt in the standard paper-ballot format.

“It’s marking the ballot; it’s delivering the ballot to us. It’s just delivering it much quicker and digitally,” Daniels said.

Daniels added that the app’s blockchain technology creates a “degree of transparency” about the validity of overseas votes. After voting, the user receives a unique ID number that can later be looked up on a public ledger for verification purposes. With this unique ID, which contains no personally identifiable information, anyone, including the voter, can make sure the vote was accurately received by the county office.

Forrest Senti, director of business and government initiatives at the National Cybersecurity Center, guided the audience through Voatz’ complex but intuitive vote-auditing feature. He suggested that all curious individuals should sign on and see what they can find with the tool.

“This is one of the things that is on the pathway to getting to the ability for citizens to routinely audit their own elections,” Senti said.

Utah is the third state in which overseas voting with the platform has been piloted. West Virginia and Colorado are the other two states. According to a Voatz white paper, West Virginia’s pilot involved 144 ballots submitted from 31 countries as part of the state’s 2018 midterm election. But according to Slate, those results were not audited.

During the demonstration, Voatz representative Larry Moore said the National Cybersecurity Center helped Voatz with the app’s auditing function, and Venti pointed out that 24 people audited election results from a Voatz pilot in Denver.

Moore gave a detailed breakdown of how the Voatz app secures multiple votes in a manner that lowers the probability of vote tampering. He said if overseas votes arrive to a single place, such as an email address, “an attacker would find simplicity in trying to reach one place to change the vote.”

Voatz’s blockchain technology avoids this situation completely, according to Moore.

“In our case, there’[re] 32 places [that the votes arrive to],” Moore said. “They are managed equally between Microsoft and Amazon. Each have 16 servers, and each of those have eight servers in two physical locations — so a total of 32 servers spread across four physical locations. All of these servers have to agree in order for a vote to be put on the blockchain.

“So simply stated, the purpose of the blockchain is to secure the aggregate vote, and it also creates … a really ideal platform to build out this audit capability.”

Gardner echoed Moore’s sentiment that Voatz provides a safer method of overseas voting.

“Email gets hacked every day, and there was no way to verify that the person sending the email was the person whose vote we said it was,” she said. “This was a way for us to at least bring more security to the process.”

In regard to privacy, Daniels added that the county office already shares a voter list, which contains personal data, with a print and mail vendor so that ballots can be shipped out. “In similar fashion, we provide the same type of data to Voatz to deliver those ballots digitally through the app,” he said.

From an identity-proofing standpoint, the overseas voting process through Voatz benefits from modern smartphone technology, which checks whether the device has been infected by a virus “in about two seconds as you launch the application,” Moore said. He added that the app obtains high-resolution pictures and driver’s license information to verify voters’ identities. This data is automatically erased after the user finishes voting.

Gardner cited several other types of voters, including missionaries and individuals temporarily living in other states, who might benefit from the platform as the technology and laws advance. Moore sees a lot of untapped potential as well.

“We at Voatz see the opportunity as really endless,” he said. “…[C]hanging demographics, the needs for accessibility, and the demand for lower costs are all driving forces that will alter the shape of elections across the United States in the future.”