West Virginia Will Use Blockchain Voting in the 2020 Presidential Election. Why?

By Emily Parker


West Virginia made history last year as the first US state to use mobile blockchain voting for a midterm election. While the process seems to have gone smoothly, the state drew a lot of criticism for applying a new technology to something as sacred as the ballot.

Here’s how it worked. Military voters overseas (or UOCAVA voters) in select West Virginia counties could cast their ballot via Android or Apple smartphones. Ballots were then stored on a network of blockchain servers. More detailed information can be found here.

Last year, I wrote about West Virginia’s foray into blockchain voting for CNN. Recently I spoke again with Donald Kersey, elections director and deputy legal counsel in the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, to discuss what went well — and not so well — in November.

But first, why did West Virginia need blockchain at all? This is always a question worth asking. Blockchain hype became so strong that during the crypto bull market of 2017, a startup could raise money simply by adding the word “blockchain” to its pitch. What was the problem that West Virginia was trying to solve, and why was blockchain the best solution?

On this point, Kersey is very clear. “In America we have a democratic government,” he explained in an interview. “The folks that represent us, that pass our laws, they are elected by the populace. And a big part of our community in America is our military.”

The problem is that when those serving in the military are stationed outside of the United States, especially in remote areas, it can be difficult or impossible to receive a secure ballot and turn it on time, either by mail or electronically. As a result, many overseas voters don’t vote at all. The Federal Voting Assistance Program reported that only around 7% of overseas voters turned out for the 2016 presidential election, compared to a domestic turnout of more than 50%.

Kersey believes this situation is unacceptable. “Some of the folks overseas, who are serving their country in the military, putting their lives on the line, are there because a president declared war. They should have a say in who their president is.”

That answers the mobile voting question, but why blockchain? Kersey believes that using blockchain technology is safer than putting all your hope in a single server. Blockchain is more secure, he says, “because there is no one single point of failure. You have a host of nodes that are storing the data. It’s also highly encrypted.”

Kersey is pleased with the November election, though there were a few problems. He wishes that county clerks had been trained earlier on how to use the app, for example. That would have made the process go more smoothly, he said.

Kersey was also surprised by the voter response. He said that out of fewer than 1000 overseas ballots cast, 144 people voted with the app, but more than 200 additional voters downloaded the app, verified their identity and tried to get a ballot, only to find that their county wasn’t offering it. Kersey hadn’t anticipated this level of interest, given that there was no targeted education toward the overseas population. “That’s a really good response rate for someone to use a brand new technology,” Kersey says.

West Virginia received a lot of backlash, with critics calling the experiment “a horrifically bad idea,” and “Theranos of voting”. Others were strongly suspicious of the start-up Voatz, which provided the technology.  

Kersey welcomes the criticism, which he says is necessary for the elections community and for voters. He says one key criticism regarded the impossibility of securing a mobile device. Even if the blockchain is secure, how do you you know that your phone hasn’t been hacked?

West Virginia’s response was to use technology that checks the security of your mobile phone, to see if you downloaded malware. If there is anything in the device that the app doesn’t like, you can’t open a ballot. Is it a perfect solution? Probably not. “I don’t know if that can be compromised or not,” he admits. “We would be silly to say that it can’t.” But Voatz is constantly patching and updating, he says. “It’s not a case where the state just blindly trusts that things get done. We stay on them.”

The technology used for West Virginia voting was not decentralized in the model of Bitcoin, where anyone could become a node that verifies the blockchain. While some believe Voatz had too much control, Kersey would argue that Voatz didn’t have direct access to the servers themselves. According to the mobile voting white paper, West Virginia used 32 servers, “evenly split over multiple geographical locations across the U.S. between the two largest cloud infrastructure providers.” The server infrastructure was hosted on Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure.

Kersey argues that you don’t need to worry about identities being revealed. “No vote that’s been cast on a blockchain is tied to a person. Once it goes on the blockchain, it’s anonymous.”

What about the argument that there’s no paper trail? Well there actually is one, Kersey says, in that voters receive an email PDF of their ballot, with their address blind copied so that their identity isn’t revealed. This exposes voters to the risk that someone will hack into their email and see for whom they voted, but this particular problem cannot be blamed on blockchain.

Kersey is honest about the limits of blockchain technology. “Ideally we don’t store ballots electronically anywhere, it’s all on paper,” he said. But when you only have 7% of military overseas casting their vote, you can’t wait for an “ideal” solution.

So for now, West Virginia plans to continue putting votes on a blockchain. “Ultimately, the plan is to do it again in the presidential election,” Kersey says. “We would love for this to become a part of West Virginia’s voting.”

How does the federal government view West Virginia’s blockchain voting experiment? “I have not talked to President Trump about this,” Kersey says with a laugh. But he adds, “everyone knows why we are doing what we are doing, they know that there is a problem with turnout, military and overseas voters.” On the national level, he says, politicians are “going to stay out of it for as long as they can because of federalism issues.”

Now that West Virginia is planning to use blockchain voting again in the presidential election, criticism is only likely to increase, especially after the Russian hacking scandals surrounding the last election. Even if the blockchain is supposed to add additional security, many voters may not see it that way. The biggest issue isn’t necessarily security, but voter confidence. “We have a skeptical electorate, to put it lightly,” he said. “We don’t trust technology in general.”

In other words, blockchain is not likely to replace paper voting anytime soon. And Kersey has no problem with that. He doesn’t think mobile voting would provide the same experience as showing up to the polls. "We go with our families to the polling place and cast our ballots, we just participated in democracy. I think it’s a cornerstone of how America came to be America, which is voting: one person, one vote. And seeing that part of the process, I think there’s a psychological impact that it has. I feel more patriotic, feel more part of my country, when I vote in person,” he says.

“We’re not saying mobile voting is the best solution to the problem, we are not saying that blockchain technology is the best solution to storage of secure data,” he says. “What we are saying though is that it’s better than what we have.”

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