Offering voters the option of casting ballots on their smartphones is an intriguing idea that could help boost turnout even in voter-friendly Oregon — as long as identity and security issues can be addressed. But it’s far from clear that they have been, especially after the FBI launched an investigation into the attempted hacking of mobile voting in a 2018 West Virginia election.
Jackson County is one of two in Oregon — Umatilla is the other — that will offer military personnel and other registered voters living overseas the chance to vote in the Nov. 5 special election. Notices have been sent to nearly 400 Jackson County voters overseas about the pilot project.
Oregon already leads the nation in efforts make it as easy as possible to register and vote. All elections are conducted by mail, and next year the state will pay the postage to mail them in. Since 2016, people who obtain or renew driver’s licenses, ID cards or permits with the Driver and Motor Vehicles office are automatically registered to vote unless they opt out.
The mobile option seems like an obvious next step, especially for younger voters who are accustomed to doing all manner of business on their phones. The trick will be ensuring security.
West Virginia was the first state to try the technology for overseas voters last year. Denver became the first city in May, and Utah County, Utah, including the city of Provo, joined in August. West Virginia saw turnout in its 2018 U.S. House midterm primary go from 13.7% to 20%.
The technology, created by a Boston-based company called Voatz, is being made available to local governments by Tusk Philanthropies. That project was founded by Bradley Tusk, a consultant who helped the ride-share company Uber get started. Tusk took the equity he was paid by Uber and founded the philanthropic venture, which has covered the costs of administering and auditing mobile voting projects.
The security of the system is supposedly assured by the use of blockchain technology, a digital public ledger that records information and is theoretically resistant to tampering.
But some experts have raised alarms about using people’s personal mobile devices, which might or might not be secure; the networks that hosted those devices; and the servers that held the information. And Voatz was less than transparent about audits it performed after the West Virginia pilot. The company required its auditors to sign non-disclosure agreements.
Voatz says its system requires users to verify their identities using multifactor authentication and facial recognition software to access their ballots and vote. The system then creates a paper ballot at the other end, but it’s not clear that the voter can verify the printout.
On Oct. 1, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia announced that the FBI was investigating an unsuccessful attempt to hack into the Voatz app. CNN cited unnamed sources who said the attempt may have come from students in an election security course at the University of Michigan. It appears no votes were altered.
Oregon’s vote-by-mail system, because it uses paper ballots that can be audited, is one of the more secure systems in the country. Until the creators of this new technology get a great deal more transparent about their security measures, Jackson County and the state of Oregon should proceed with extreme caution if they proceed at all.