Overseas voters will have the option of filling out their ballot from their phone as part of a pilot program being tested by Utah County for the municipal primary election in August.
For the upcoming municipal primary, the pilot will affect the 58 registered Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) voters from Utah County, though there are typically a higher number of overseas voters in presidential election years.
“It gives these overseas voters a more convenient way, a more timely way, and a more private way to cat their ballots,” said Utah County Clerk, Amelia Powers.
While security for mobile voting was a concern that was considered, Powers said the app Voatz will offer blockchain-based mobile voting, allowing for a voting process that is infinitely more secure than the old system of sending emails.
Before this option, UOCAVA voters had to either send a ballot via regular mail, which could be slow, or send it via email, which isn’t private.
“They would email us back their ballot and we could obviously see their name, and we would look at how they voted, then have someone manually fill in a ballot the way this person wanted to vote,” Powers said.
Besides the privacy issues, emailing a ballot also posed security questions, as the county had no way to verify that the person who was registered to vote was the one who had sat down at the computer to fill out the ballot.
People with disabilities are also entitled to use systems available to UOCAVA voters, said Deputy Utah County Clerk, Josh Daniels.
The app being used to make the mobile voting possible, Voatz, verifies a person’s identity by comparing their face to their photo ID, as well as comparing the information on the ID with what’s already in the clerk’s voting records.
“It’s literally digitizing the exact same process a voter would experience at polls when they show photo ID,” Daniels said.
The app is technically a remote ballot marking device, Daniels said. It allows someone to mark a ballot remotely, deliver it to the clerk securely where it is encrypted and stored digitally until it’s time to count the votes. Then, the ballot is printed off in a form that can be read by the county’s scanners and counted along with the rest of the votes.
That way, Daniels said, the ballots are private, but can still be audited to ensure transparency and accountability.
Powers and Daniels both see potential for the process to be easier not just for Utah County’s overseas military voters, but also for those serving overseas missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Daniels said Utah County has approached the church about making sure the app is available through filtering put in place while people are serving missions.
The system has been used for multiple other elections in the U.S., including Denver’s 2019 municipal elections and primary and general elections in West Virginia in 2018. The system started with smaller, simpler elections for unions or state political parties, said Nimit Sawhney, Voatz CEO and co-founder, and are working their way up in complexity.
While the city of Vineyard was interested in using the technology for its city elections, Powers said that’s not yet possible because the equipment must be tested on a broader basis before it can be used for non-UOCAVA voters.
Daniels said one of the challenges is that the various tests and standards for elections systems weren’t written or designed with this type of system in mind.
“Right now, state certification is only granted to systems that are tested by these national laboratories which only have testing standards designed for systems that exist today, not the systems of tomorrow,” Daniels said.
The pilot is a four-way partnership between Tusk Philanthropies, Voatz, Utah County and the National Cybersecurity Center.
Tusk Philanthropies is partnering with the county to cover the cost of the pilot program, Powers said, while the NCC is working to develop auditing procedures.
“If we were allowed (to use mobile voting for full elections) under state law, we would look into that and see what it would take,” Powers said.
However, other counties may use the system for their UOCAVA voters in future elections depending on how the municipal primary goes for Utah County, Powers said.
“If things go really well, there are other counties that may pick this up for the municipal general,” Powers said. “All with the intent of providing a more secure and convenient system for the 2020 presidential election.”
Sawhney said with every pilot program, Voatz learns more critical information, and is taking baby steps to get it to a point where the technology could be available on a broader basis.
“Utah’s pilot is another sign that the momentum for mobile voting in our country is very real and supports our theory that when you show people a much better way to do something, there becomes a demand for it,” said Bradley Tusk, founder and CEO of Tusk Philanthropies, in a press release. “As we enter into a Presidential election year, we have to continue to remove as many barriers and hurdles as possible so a lot more people are able to participate in our democracy.”