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Cast your next vote by phone? Utah lawmakers give thumbs-up to pilot proposal

Ballots are processed at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019.
Ballots are processed at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Aug. 7, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Even as the tumult surrounding 2020 election processes and results continues, Utah lawmakers are looking ahead to potential new ways to help residents easily and securely engage their civic voting duties.

An interim legislative committee this week advanced a proposal from Rep. Mike Winder aiming to expand opportunities for Utah cities interested in testing new, internet-based systems that allow voters to cast their ballots via smartphone.

Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner told members of the Government Operations Interim Committee that her county has been piloting just such a system, making it available to overseas voters, for the last two years with positive results.

“This bill would be a pilot project to allow a municipality or a city to opt in to allowing a broader base of their voters to utilize a mobile phone or an electronic means of casting their ballots,” Powers Gardner said. “Utah County has currently been utilizing this system for the past five elections ... and in this most recent election we had over 1,000 people utilize a system like this.”

Winder, R-West Valley City, said Utah has a proven track record in leading out on finding alternatives to the in-person voting procedures that have been the norm for U.S. elections for hundreds of years.

“I love the idea that Utah is at the forefront of the nation when it comes to making voting easier for people, making it accessible and embracing the 21st century,” Winder said. “I love that we were one of the first to embrace vote by mail.

“Here’s an opportunity for another pilot ... and this has worked so well with our military and overseas voters. To expand this as a pilot program available to Utah municipalities seems like a logical next step.”

Utah County has used an internet-based system by a company called Voatz that utilizes distributed ledger, or blockchain technology (similar to the digital systems on which cryptocurrencies are based) to coordinate remote voting wherein a voter uses a smartphone to make their election choices but the votes show up on a paper ballot that gets processed and tabulated just like in-person or mail-in voting, according to Powers Gardner.

The Voatz remote voting system uses blockchain technology, similar to systems on which cryptocurrencies are based, to manage and secure votes cast via smartphones.
Voatz

Committee member Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, said she was concerned about public reports from cybersecurity experts critical of internet-based voting systems and, in particular, the Voatz system that’s been in use by Utah County.

“There have been a host of articles highlighting the concerns with electronic voting and even specific critiques of the Voatz app that Utah County has been using,” Harrison said. “MIT came out with a research paper ... also Homeland Security itself had concerns. There’s too many cybertechnology experts that say it’s impossible to secure these devices and these apps and that the technology is just not where it needs to be to expand these projects.”

Powers Gardner said that there was a lot of misunderstanding surrounding what both MIT and the Department of Homeland Security reported about Voatz and noted that the body responsible for certifying technology used in U.S. election process, the U.S. Voting Assistance Commission’s Voting System Test Laboratories, has recently signed off on the Voatz system.

Powers Gardner said the certification by the Voting System Test Laboratories ensured Voatz was “no more of a risk than the other voting systems we’re currently using.”

The Government Operations Interim Committee voted 6-3 to advance the proposal, which could be considered in the upcoming 2021 general session of the Utah Legislature.

Describing blockchain technology is tricky and even a nontechnical accounting of how it works can become mind-numbingly complicated in fairly short order, but there are some simpler analogies.

First, note there are three central pillars upon which blockchain is built: Decentralization, transparency and immutability.

To further decipher, no single person or entity controls it; everyone can see it; and no records within the chain can be added, removed or altered without the consent of everyone on the network, i.e., it’s very, very secure.

The robust nature of blockchain technology has formed the basis for a cryptocurrency market that now has thousands of different iterations. Much of the debate and commentary on these virtual currencies has been focused on the speculative nature of the currencies’ valuations and less so on the blockchain platforms on which they exist. However, the platform is a distinctly different and separate thing from the currencies it can be used to support.

Last October, Voatz CEO Nimit Sawhney told the Deseret News that while Voatz and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum share the characteristic of functioning from a distributed ledger platform, there are notable differences that were engineered specifically to work with election systems.

“We had to build a network that was open and also addresses the concerns of election officials,” Sawhney said. “While access to the network is permissioned, it’s also open in the sense you can see what is happening, but to participate (as a verifier) you have to go through a vetting process. Potentially, every voter could be their own auditor in the background.”

Sawhney also highlighted that the Voatz system creates a paper ballot in addition to its digital records. The system creates three levels of verifiable redundancy with a receipt that goes to the voter, a printed ballot and the secured data in the blockchain. It actually establishes a higher level of accountability and transparency than systems currently in use across most of the country.