Seattle tries out mobile voting

Seattle tries out mobile voting

But voter skepticism about online security has some Washington state officials responsible for general elections wary of rolling the tech.

About 1.2 million Seattle area voters will be able to use their smartphone, laptop or a computer at their local library to vote in a current election this year.

This will be the first-time online voting is available to all eligible registered voters of a district, according to a foundation behind the initiative.

The King Conservation District in Washington State is the third region in the U.S. to partner with the non-profit Tusk Philanthropies on a national effort to expand mobile voting, and Washington is the fifth state to pilot mobile voting in general. The King Conservation District is a state environmental agency that includes Seattle and 33 other cities, but it is separate from the King County Elections agency and operates under a different budget.

The King Conservation District has struggled to spur voter turnout in past elections. Last year’s Board of Supervisors’ election was among its highest ever with a turnout of just 0.2%, or 3,000 voters out of a possible 1.22 million registered to vote, according to Julia Wise, director of elections for King County.

Seattle’s King Conservation District began accepting electronic ballots on Jan. 22 for three of five supervisor seats; it will continue to accept them through Feb. 11.

For the past decade, Washington State has allowed all of its voters to access ballots electronically, but only for the purposes of printing out and then mailing them in. For the first time, the King Conservation District election is allowing voters to access ballots and submit their votes online via Amazon’s cloud service.

“It’s not technology I’ll be rolling out for King County in upcoming elections,” said Julia Wise, King County Elections director. “The Conservation District in Washington State has struggled to reach out to its voters. This district doesn’t have the money to get a ballot into the mail for 1.22 million registered voters, so they’re trying to find a creative way to get voters access.”

General elections in King County have had no problems garnering voter turnout, according to Wise, whose office has a vastly larger budget than the Conservation District’s. In past presidential elections, King County saw 80% voter turnout.

While Wise has no plans to roll out internet-based voting for Seattle’s general populace, she said she's “watching” the Conservation District’s election closely and has used the same technology for absentee voters living overseas – though those voters emailed the ballots as attachments.

The problem with online voting, Wise said, isn’t that it's more or less secure; it’s more about public perception and how that may affect turnout.

“I don’t think they’re ready for it," she said. "Critically important to running elections as an administrator is having voter confidence and trust in the electoral system. There’s understandable concern around election security and hacking of anything on the internet whatsoever. So, I think this is a great test that I’m very interested in and will continue to watch, but part that test is about voter behavior. We see there’s a lot of voters concerned about this method and I wouldn’t implement any method that I’d be concerned about taking [away voter turnout].”

“Democracy is always at its finest when… all voices are heard. Voter trust is too important to risk in our King County elections at this time,” Wise continued. “I still applaud the [Conservation District] for getting creative with a small budget.”

Security concerns

Critics of mobile or online voting, including security experts, believe it opens up the prospect of server penetration attacks, client-device malware, denial-of-service attacks and other disruptions – all associated with infecting voters' computers with malware or infecting the computers in the elections office that handle and count ballots.

Jeremy Epstein, vice chairman of the Association for Computing Machinery's U.S. Technology Policy Committee, said Seattle’s “experiment is very ill-advised,” and voters who use it are hoping that the software correctly records their vote, though  “there's no way to ensure that's the case.

“They're hoping the software doesn't disclose their vote to anyone else; there's no way to ensure that's the case either,” Epsein said via email. “They're hoping that the servers don't get hacked which could change their votes - yet again, no way to ensure that's the case. There's been no independent security assessment of the system - just the vendor's assertions that their system is secure. And what we know from 20-plus  years of web applications is that there is always a way to break in, and it's usually not hard.”

Adding to an innate insecurity of online and mobile voting systems is that compromises often aren’t discovered for months after they happen, long after the election results are finalized and it's too late to do anything.

mobile ballot omniballot Democracy Live

Democracy Live's OmniBallot mobile interface.

“If I were a betting man (which I'm not), I'd put my money on the nickel slots before I relied on the security of a system like this to record votes. At least with nickel slots you've got some chance of not losing everything,” Epstein said. “For now, mail-in paper ballots are the only safe choice.”

Michela Menting, digital security & blockchain research director at ABI Research, said mobile voting is becoming mature enough to be used in the general voting process, and there will be increasing opportunities to allow for tech-based voting, whether it is mobile or blockchain-based.

“The security concerns associated with voting can be alleviated through technology, there is no doubt, especially when this is properly implemented,” Menting said.

The technology behind the Conservation District’s supervisors’ election is funded by Tusk Philanthropies, a non-profit focused on promoting mobile voting as a way to increase voter turnout. The technology for the online voting platform is being provided by vendor Democracy Live, a company founded in 2007.

Democracy Live is among a small number of mobile voting platforms that includes  VoatzVotemSecureVote and Scytl, all of which have piloted their technology in various public or private balloting that included company stockholder and college board elections.

“It’s the biggest innovation in democracy in years and we are extremely grateful to King Conservation District and King County Elections for making it happen,” Bradley Tusk, CEO and founder of Tusk Philanthropies, said in a blog post.

Tusk Philanthropies has also funded mobile voting efforts in Utah and Denver, both of which used technology from Voatz, whose platform uses blockchain as well as AWS and Microsoft’s Azure cloud services to record ballots. West Virginia has also piloted mobile voting using Voatz’s platform.

Past mobile voting initiatives, however, have mainly been aimed at absentee voters, such as military and their families residing overseas. Seattle’s current mobile voting pilot is aimed squarely at the U.S.-based voter population.

How it works

Seattle area voters can log into the secure Democracy Live’s OmniBallot portal on their smart devices using their name and date of birth to access and mark their ballot. Once a voter has made their selections, he or she will has the opportunity to review the  ballot to ensure it was marked correctly.

Upon confirming their selections, a voter will submit their signature to verify their submission before electronically returning their ballot. Voters will also have the option to print and return their marked ballots via local drop boxes throughout the county, or to mail in their ballot. Ballots will be verified and tabulated by King County Elections.

Unlike some other mobile voting platforms, Democracy Live’s does not use blockchain as the basis for collecting and securing electronic ballots. Instead, it uses Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) Object lock, which is NIST compliant and has FedRamp certification, a government program that provides a standardized approach to security assessment, authorization and continuous monitoring for cloud services.

“Of course, this does not mean that the solution is 100% secure, but it provides one of the highest levels of security available today for protecting ballot information,” Menting said via email. “While it is not necessarily more (or less) secure than traditional paper-based voting, it is certainly more cost-effective and time efficient, and has the advantage of being able to reach those eligible to vote that are overseas or disabled.”

Democracy Live said it developed its OmniBallot platform to be a fully accessible, ADA-compliant secure balloting portal available to each of the 200 million voters in the U.S.

The OmniBallot portal has been deployed in more than 1,000 elections across the U.S, serving some 15 million voters in hundreds of jurisdictions since 2008, according to the company.

“Security and accessibility are the key reason Democracy Live is excited to participate in this pilot. Outside of Washington State, most overseas and military voters’ email or fax ballots, which may be the least secure method of transmitting critical documents such as ballots,” said Bryan Finney, CEO and Founder of Democracy Live. “Voters with disabilities often cannot vote independently at home because they cannot see, mark or hold the ballot. This pilot is an effort to show how all voters, including voters with disabilities and remote voters.”

The voting technology behind Democracy Live is different from that of mobile voting vendors who use blockchain to store ballots submitted by voters.

While blockchain provides “de facto immutability,” a cloud service like Amazon’s or Microsoft’s needs to go a step further to prove that it cannot be altered, according to Menting.

“But neither is inherently more secure than another; cloud just has an additional barrier to overcome security-wise, which Democracy Live seems to have successfully tackled,” Menting said. “I believe that such technologies, whether blockchain or mobile, will continue to emerge as highly capable and suitable technologies for voting going forward.”

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