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Despite hacking fears, a vote for digital ballots





Boston entrepreneur Nimit Sawhney is swimming against the tide.

At a time when Russian hackers are attacking the computers used in US elections, Sawhney is about to launch the first test in a federal election of an electronic voting system that uses smartphones for absentee ballots.

The state of West Virginia this week said it would use the mobile phone balloting system developed by Sawhney’s company, Voatz, for military personnel deployed overseas to vote in the November midterm elections.

While the system was successfully tested by others before, including by the Massachusetts Democratic Party, some voting advocacy organizations are alarmed at its use in an official election, fearing the mobile technology is vulnerable to hacking. But Sawhney said his system has so far repulsed the Russians.

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“They’ve already been trying, ever since we’ve been started,” Sawhney said. “In many cases, they don’t hide where they’re coming from, and we’re able to determine that they’re probing our system. We’re aware and conscious and keeping a close watch.”

The Voatz app uses the advanced security features of newer Apple and Android smartphones to verify the voter’s identity, first using facial-recognition software to match a photo taken by the cellphone against that on the person’s driver’s license or federal ID card. Voatz says employees will also double-check the system’s facial recognition software.

Once the voter is identified, the app loads a ballot on the phone screen. The voter keys in his or her selections and sends the ballot to a secure server, where a paper copy is printed and stored. The voter can receive an e-mailed copy, and the system also records each vote in a digital blockchain, a technology used in cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. The blockchain preserves an indelible record of each vote.

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner is both an enthusiastic supporter of new technology and a military veteran. The West Point graduate served 23 years in the Army, including deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was unable to vote in 2012 and 2014 because he had no access to mail service.

Mike Queen, Warner’s deputy chief of staff, said many other military personnel deployed abroad in 2012 were unable to vote. So Warner was eager to test a system that might solve the problem.

“It’s not a matter of military men and women not wanting to vote. It’s hundreds of thousands of them locked into remote areas who couldn’t vote,” Queen said. “Secretary Warner was at least concerned enough and maybe brave enough to say, let’s try this.”

At first, West Virginia will test Voatz on a very small scale — state residents in US military units deployed overseas, and a few other absentee voters. Queen said it is unclear how many voters would be eligible.

However, Warner is letting election officials in the 55 counties of West Virginia decide on their own whether to participate; so far, eight have committed to the test. Warner conducted an even smaller test of the Voatz system during the state’s primary in May, in just two counties where fewer than 20 votes were cast by phone.

In Massachusetts, Secretary of State William F. Galvin said he will watch the West Virginia test with interest.

“Obviously all of us dealing with military personnel, especially in combat areas, have a challenge,” Galvin said. “We’re going to evaluate it, see if it has potential.”

‘Obviously all of us dealing with military personnel, especially in combat areas, have a challenge. We’re going to evaluate it, see if it has potential.’

Voatz has not been certified as secure by the US Election Assistance Commission, a federally funded agency that tests voting technology. But it has undergone about 30 field trials — by church groups, labor unions, and other organizations that hold elections.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party tried Voatz during its June convention in Worcester, where over 4,000 delegates used the app to vote on a slate of candidates.

“It worked out extremely well,” said party chairman Gus Bickford. “It probably cut down the time of the convention by about 90 minutes.”

However, there were problems with an earlier test, when the Utah County Republican Party
used Voatz for the election of officers and delegates in March. Many voters were unable to log on to Voatz, but vice chairman Josh Daniels said it was the party’s own fault: It had assigned the same generic passwords to voters in multiple precincts; Voatz treated their log-ons as a security breach and locked out users.

“Our problem was mostly operational on our side,” said Daniels. However, voters in two precincts were able to log on and Daniels said the app performed flawlessly.

Voatz is a young, tiny company with just 12 employees and $2.2 million in seed funding, and West Virginia’s decision to use the largely untested technology has generated intense criticism from some election advocacy organizations.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, called online voting “a horrifically bad idea.” And Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, an organization that advocates for the use of paper ballots in US elections, said the Voatz technology is not secure enough for voting. “There’s no way to verify that the voter’s intent was properly captured by the system,” Schneider said.

Sawhney acknowledged that, in theory, the Voatz software could be programmed to generate falsified ballots. The copy mailed to a soldier might show the votes actually cast, for example, while the ballot stored by election officials might show a different set of votes.

“If the software is compromised, that could happen. Theoretically, what you’re saying is possible,” Sawhney said, but he added the Voatz software is rigorously and regularly audited to ensure that the likelihood of a successful breach is quite low.

Charles Stewart, a professor in the political science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted existing absentee ballot systems aren’t tamper-proof either. For instance, West Virginia and many other states allow military absentees to submit ballots through fax machines, a dated and highly hackable technology.

”It’s always ‘compared to what?’ ” said Stewart. “The alternative is not really between Voatz and going into a polling place and using a paper ballot. The alternative is, use Voatz or a fax machine. . . . You think that’s more secure?”

Sawhney, 42, grew up in 1980s India, a time of ferocious political conflict that featured the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi and voters being forced at gunpoint to vote for the “right” candidate. Sawhney said these memories inspired his work on a system that enables citizens to vote in private, safe from threats and coercion.

Sawhney developed a prototype voting app that won first prize in a hackathon at the 2014 South by Southwest
arts and technology festival in Austin, Texas. He quit his job at the Boston office of a French software company the next year to launch Voatz, housing it at first in technology incubators Techstars Boston and MassChallenge. In January the company received its first funding, $2.2 million, in a round led by Utah-based Medici Ventures, a subsidiary of online retailer Overstock.com.

Like other technologists, MIT’s Stewart is skeptical about smartphone voting, but he regards the West Virginia test as a valuable research opportunity. “Let’s learn something from it,” he said. “Let’s not just treat this as anathema and vote it off the island.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.




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