Voting may be the next piece of campaigning to feel the disruption of technology.
Voatz, a Boston-based startup, is pitching its online voting platform and blockchain technology to jurisdictions around the country and has gotten buy-in for at least two pilot projects.
Those test runs are slated for March and July 2018. If these early efforts are successful and spur the adoption of online voting, it could have far reaching implications for campaign strategy. To wit, early voting windows have already shifted campaign resources further forward in the calendar.
The ability of voters to cast their ballots online could dramatically change everything from digital advertising to data modeling. In fact, early indications are that allowing even some part of the voting process to shift online has a positive impact on voter turnout. But any benefit for the electorate could come at the expense of voting integrity with many cyber security experts still questioning the safety of online voting.
“Internet voting has been around for 15 years,” said Nimit Sawhney, co-founder and CEO of Voatz. “But because of the negative perceptions in the press, there’s very strong opposition to it from the [ballot] security standpoint. So we have to start at the ground floor with a local election. And then say, ‘look, this is 10,000 or 50,000 people voting [online].’”
Local election boards and secretaries of state have been searching for new efficiencies to their processes for years – many with the help of federal dollars. While they’ve been willing to toy with voting machines and different ballot formats, shifting any part of the process online has been met with resistance.
According to Sawhney, that could soon change.
“We’ve identified 17 states right now in the U.S. that have some sort of favorable laws. And then there are some local jurisdictions — Orange County, Calif., Burlington, Vt. — where we’re also focusing [in addition to] overseas military people.”
Sawhney’s firm, which generates revenue from administering the elections, pitches its blockchain technology as a way to ensure that voting via smartphone is anonymous and secure. But they aren’t the only firm competing in this space. For instance, London-based Smartmatic last year made headlines when it administered the Utah GOP’s caucus. At the time, state GOP Chairman James Evans said in a statement: “We are proud to have taken a leading role in election modernization. By offering online voting, we expanded the number of options citizens have to participate and made voting as convenient as possible.”
Still, Wired notes that online voting has also been tried in D.C. and Alaska, and abroad in Canada, Estonia and Australia, but “every time, researchers have detected substantial vulnerabilities in the systems that ran them.”
Sawhney said his firm minimizes the risk, and noted that Voatz’s technology was used by some 40,000 voters in university elections, political party internal elections and corporate elections in the past year.
“We found a way to make it very safe on your iPhone [5 or newer] and some Android devices,” Sawhney said. “We understand this is not something that people are going to be able to trust on day one. It’s going to be another option, just like you have a mail-in or absentee option.”
Meanwhile, one firm that’s been trying to shift absentee balloting at least partly online has been having some success. Vote.org, which also began as a startup, last year rolled out an electronic signature program on absentee ballot forms in seven states.
Voters requesting an absentee ballot were able to sign by taking a photo of their manual signatures, explained Debra Cleaver, Vote.org’s founder. “And our analysis showed that it had a statistically significant positive effect on turnout, meaning that those who could simply take care of the entire thing online were more likely to actually cast ballots.”
Vote.org is now pushing electronic signatures in the rest of the states that accept faxed absentee ballot applications, rolling out its technology on voter registration forms in Colorado — the only state that accepts faxed voter registration forms — and working directly with other states to encourage them to accept electronic signatures on all voting forms, Cleaver said.
“At this point, your voter registration form is the only contract you can't sign electronically in America.”