West Virginia is about to take a leap of faith in voting technology — but it could put people’s ballots at risk. Next month, it will become the first state to deploy a smartphone app in a general election, allowing hundreds of overseas residents and members of the military stationed abroad to cast their ballots remotely. And the app will rely on blockchain, the same buzzy technology that underpins bitcoin, in yet another Election Day first. “Especially for people who are serving the country, I think we should find ways to make it easier for them to vote without compromising on the security,” said Nimit Sawhney, co-founder of Voatz, the company that created the app of the same name that West Virginia is using. “Right now, they send their ballots by email and fax, and — whatever you may think of our security — that’s totally not a secure way to send back a ballot.” But cybersecurity and election integrity advocates say West Virginia is setting an example of all the things states shouldn’t do when it comes to securing their elections, an already fraught topic given fears that Russian operatives are trying again to tamper with U.S. democracy.
“This is a crazy time to be pulling a stunt like this. I don’t know what they’re thinking,” said David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories who is on the board of Verified Voting, an election security advocacy group. “All internet voting systems, including this one, have a host of cyber vulnerabilities which make it extremely dangerous.”
Voting integrity advocates are in overall agreement about the best way to secure elections, and they have pressed states to stick with technology that includes auditable paper trails — even suing Georgia over that issue. They’ve urged the Department of Homeland Security to advise states against having modems in voting machines. And they have pressed the government to warn state election officials against any kind of online voting.
So the security experts are not thrilled to see blockchain entering the picture.
“Why is blockchain voting a dumb idea?” University of Pennsylvania cybersecurity expert Matt Blaze tweeted in August. “Glad you asked. For starters: – It doesn’t solve any problems civil elections actually have. – It’s basically incompatible with ‘software independence’, considered an essential property – It can make ballot secrecy difficult or impossible.”