PROVO — Voting via smartphone is coming to Utah County this year — making it only the third area in the nation to test the mobile voting waters.
But unless you're an active-duty military member or overseas, don't expect to cast a ballot using your smartphone.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Utah County officials announced Tuesday that Utah County would launch a mobile voting pilot program for this year's municipal primary and general elections, but only for active-duty military, their eligible dependents and overseas voters.
The pilot program — a collaboration between Utah County, the National Cybersecurity Center, Tusk Philanthropies (a foundation aimed at expanding mobile voting), and a mobile voting app called Voatz — isn't costing Utah County a dime, said Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers.
"It's free," Powers said, noting that Tusk Philanthropies' foundation will be footing the bill, a cost estimated at $99,250 for the primary.
The program will be a first for Utah, having only ever come to two other U.S. areas. The pilot was first implemented in West Virginia before going to Denver last year.
“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. “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.”
Cox, who serves as Utah's top elections official, said he was "thrilled" the program is coming to Utah County.
"This pilot project is emblematic of Utah’s commitment to safe, efficient elections for all, especially our brave military and their families all over the world," Cox said in a news release. "The opportunity for these Utahns to vote via smartphone means they will more securely participate in the democratic processes they are serving to protect.”
Under the program, eligible registered Utah County voters may cast their ballots via smartphone for local races in Eagle Mountain, Highland, Lehi, Mapleton, Orem, Pleasant Grove, Santaquin and Springville, as well as City Council seats three and four in Provo. The pilot will be used by troops and overseas citizens serving abroad, who have traditionally had to rely on paper absentee paper. The program will be offered in addition to, not in place of, the absentee ballot option.
'Epicenter of innovation,' not 'dysfunction'
The pilot project comes after Utah County gained somewhat of a reputation for election fiascos in previous years. Gov. Gary Herbert last year called his home county the "epicenter of dysfunction" for elections after long lines plagued last year's elections.
Utah County's GOP last year forced out the county's former clerk/auditor, Bryan Thompson, and instead gave newcomer Powers the Republican nomination for the seat.
Easily winning last year's election, Powers has spent the last year trying to revamp Utah County's election reputation, and the mobile voting pilot program is one innovation for which Powers said she has high hopes.
"We're working at changing our reputation from the 'epicenter of dysfunction' to be the 'epicenter of innovation,'" Powers told the Deseret News.
"As the home of Silicon Slopes and all of that innovation here in Utah, we feel strongly that Utah County government shouldn't be lagging behind the rest of the state when it comes to innovation and technology, we should be leading the way."
How does Voatz work?
The pilot's app uses the same verification technology already used by most new smartphones: facial or thumbprint recognition, said Larry Moore, senior vice president of Voatz, a startup out of Boston that has designed the app.
Voters who qualify for the pilot — estimated by Powers at only about 60 for the primary and about 200 for the general election — will download the app on the smartphones and upload a government ID such as a driver's license to register. Then, when they're ready to cast their votes, they will submit their ballots through the app, which will verify their identification with the smartphone's biometric technology, Moore said.
Only certain smartphones, iPhone 5s or newer and select Androids 2016 or newer, are currently supported, according to Voatz's website.
But how can voters be sure its secure?
"It's no secret this is a controversial topic," Moore said, acknowledging there will be skeptics. Voatz's "single mission," he said, "is to provide the most secure voting capability on the planet."
Because the Voatz app is built with security measures already used in certain smartphones and employs blockchain technology — the same technologies used by cryptocurrencies like bitcoin — Moore said it's "virtually unhackable."
"I'm not saying it's impossible to hack because you never know until it's done," Moore added, "but there are several things that make it extraordinarily difficult."
More said votes will be verified and immutably stored on multiple, geographically different verifying servers. And since it uses blockchain technology, votes can be voter-verified and audited with each vote cast.
Blockchain can be described as a shared digital spreadsheet in which every transaction or change to the data must be verified by participating, validating peers. Blockchain is "currently the most safe method of recording votes," claims Tusk Philanthropies on its Mobile Voting Project website.
"The decentralized nature of blockchain technology, both in regards to data ownership and storage, is a powerful security measure in resisting large-scale attacks and tampering," the website states.
Mobile voting may expand if all goes well
To Powers, the Voatz app has checked all boxes in her search for a more efficient, innovative and safe method of voting.
"It's secure, it's anonymous, it's transparent, and on our end, it takes a lot less manpower," Powers said, noting that currently, Utah County military voters email their ballots, which voluntarily waives their right to an anonymous ballot.
Powers said the county will partner with the National Cybersecurity Center to audit the results of the election to determine its effectiveness. If all goes well, Powers said it could be extended to voters with disabilities for perhaps the 2020 election.
Beyond that? Voters will have to wait and see.
"We're more than happy to be part of the pilot to help prove or at least (test) that this technology can be a good, secure alternative way of voting in the future if people should choose," Powers said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an inaccurate estimate for the cost of the primary pilot program. It's actually $99,250, not $50,000.