Politics & Government

Is higher voter turnout worth the risk of hacking? W.Va pilot program will find out

West Virginia is experimenting with a mobile app that will allow overseas military personnel and U.S. citizens posted abroad to vote Nov. 6. Those who participate must opt in ahead of time.
West Virginia is experimenting with a mobile app that will allow overseas military personnel and U.S. citizens posted abroad to vote Nov. 6. Those who participate must opt in ahead of time. AP

Four advocacy groups for elections and cybersecurity called Wednesday for the halt of a pilot project in West Virginia that allows military personnel posted overseas and other U.S. citizens living abroad to cast ballots for the 2018 midtersm using a smartphone app.

“Military voters … deserve any help the government can give them to participate in democracy equally with all other citizens. However, in this threat environment, online voting endangers the very democracy the U.S. military is charged with protecting,” the groups said.

Proponents argued that with voter turnout so low, technology like the app is worth the risk.

The report was issued by the National Election Defense Coalition, the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause, the center-right think tank R Street Institute, and the Technology Policy Committee of the Association for Computing Machinery, a group that says it provides neutral input on issues involving computing technology.

Election security has become a top concern after the 2016 campaign, in which Russian hackers interfered with the presidential campaign and have since been accused of interfering in local campaigns as well. Federal officials have warned state and local governments that their systems could be compromised by hackers and they should take steps to tighten security.

A number of experts have voiced strong opposition to the mobile app voting program.

“Count me among the cybersecurity experts who are appalled at this idea,” said Ross Rustici, senior director of intelligence services at Cybereason, a Boston-based cybersecurity firm. “I would argue that it’s a matter of when, not if, that type of voting system gets compromised.”

Communication between the voter’s mobile device and West Virginia’s vote counters occurs on the blockchain, a consensual digital system in which all users must agree and accept any transaction before it is codified. The technology was invented to support bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that emerged in 2009, but has expanded to other uses, including real estate transactions, supply chain logistics and royalty payments in the music industry.

While the technology is considered promising, some don’t view it as safe.

“Blockchain does not magically make online voting secure, it remains vulnerable to multiple attacks that can compromise an election,” said Susan Greenhalgh, policy director at the National Election Defense Coalition..

West Virginia Secretary of State Andrew “Mac” Warner, a Republican, issued a plea last week to allow the pilot project to go ahead, giving military personnel an easier way to vote.

“We are giving soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines across the globe and civilians the right to vote, and let’s give this pilot project a chance to work,” Warner told a workshop at the U.S. Capitol that brought together election supervisors from around the country.

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Under the plan, 24 of West Virginia’s 50 counties will permit military personnel and U.S. citizens posted overseas to vote on Nov. 6 using a smartphone app that allows them to get a ballot. The custom e-ballots would offer each voter, depending on precinct, a choice from U.S. Senate and House races down to local elected posts.

Those who opt into the program will obtain the app by a Boston start-up, Voatz.

Warner, who spent a career in the Army before entering politics, said the Voatz app may not be a panacea but that its benefits outweigh risks.

“Folks, we’re banking on our mobile devices. We’re shopping on our mobile devices. We’re sending our credit card information across it. If it’s insecure for those, then it’s going to be insecure for voting. But if you use that to shop and bank and so forth, I think we should be able to trust soldiers overseas to be able to vote,” Warner said.

Warner told McClatchy that he expects only a “couple hundred” people to participate in the program in West Virginia, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of military service per capita. He said the state has “about 8,000 people, military, overseas.”

Only an average of 13 of every 100 military personnel posted overseas cast ballots and have them counted in U.S. elections, Warner said.

“We don’t need to be tinkering at the edges,” he said. “We need to revolutionize the approach we take to getting people the right to vote.”

A YouTube video produced for the West Virginia secretary of state’s office boasts of the simplicity of the mobile app voting system.

The West Virginia Secretary of State announced a pilot program to help military personnel stationed overseas to use a mobile app to vote in the 2018 midterm election. Experts have raised concerns about the security of the app, Voatz.

“No matter where you are serving, no matter which continent you live on, your secure ballot is delivered back to West Virginia and will count on election day,” the video says.

Once a West Virginian registers as an overseas voter, he or she can receive instructions on how to download the app and register. To cast a ballot, the voter must take a photo of a valid government ID, like a passport of driver license, then take a video selfie that includes blinking eyes “to show it’s a live person.”

After verification, the voter receives a ballot from their home precinct. After filling it out, the voter again inputs either fingerprint or selfie as a final verification to transmit the ballot.

The critical report from the four groups, titled Email and Internet Voting: The Overlooked Threat to Election Security, said blockchains can be tampered with either by colluding participants or hackers who infect servers with malicious software.

Executives at Voatz, the Boston startup that created the app, couldn’t be reached immediately. A New York-based foundation financing the pilot project, Tusk Montgomery Philanthropies, said it doesn’t believe the Voatz system is insecure.

“There’s a bigger picture issue which is, no one is voting,” said Sheila Nix, president of the foundation. “We’re working on trying to improve democracy as well as have safe and secure voting systems.”

Carye Blaney, county clerk of West Virginia’s Monongalia County, said in a telephone interview that the state is indebted to its overseas military personnel: “We owe it to them to at least try the technology to see if it will work.”

The pilot program is drawing many eyes.

“There are other states interested,” Nix said. “Right now, most are waiting … They want to see how West Virginia went.”

Warner said his state office has been in touch with officials in the Philippines, New Zealand, Turkey, Israel, UK, Mexico and Canada who have voiced some interest in possibly replicating the program.

This story has been updated to correct that the National Election Defense Coalition is a virtual group of advocates and not based in New York.

Tim Johnson, 202 383-6028, @timjohnson4
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