More than 100 Westerners, living abroad in nearly 20 countries, have cast their votes in an unprecedented pilot project, with a mobile phone dial-up.
The nationwide pilot, which covers 24 of Virginia's 55 counties, uses a mix of smartphones, face recognition and the same technology that underpins Bitcoin – the block chain – to provide a great and safe way for service personnel, the Peace Corps, to volunteer or other Americans who live abroad to attend the split times.
West Virginia is the first state to implement a blockchain-based reconciliation project to such an extent, state officials say. For a wider application, the technology could facilitate tuning and possibly reduce long queues in the polls. However, many security experts fear that the technology may not be suitable for wider deployment – and may even present security holes that threaten the integrity of elections.
By the end of Tuesday, election officials expect more votes from up to five other countries to be included digitally. Voters have already submitted ballots from Afghanistan, Iraq, Guatemala, Lebanon, South Africa and Venezuela, said Michael Queen, deputy chief of staff of West Virginia Foreign Minister Mac Warner. Warner's own son, who is based in the military and based abroad, also participated in the pilot, said Queen.
"It has been very successful," said Queen. "We are very satisfied with the participation."
Up to 300,000 US overseas voters have requested ballots in the 2016 elections, but have not submitted them, Queen said, a figure suggesting that many Americans have difficulty participating in the democratic process.
West Virginia tried to solve the problem by turning to Voatz, a company that received $ 2.2 million in January from Medici Ventures, a block-focused investment firm of online retailer Overstock.com.
The Voatz app has been used to a limited extent in a number of other settings, including Student Rallies and May in West Virginia. Election Day, however, is the company's biggest test so far.
To make a ballot, voters must first register via the app by uploading a picture of their driver's license or other photo ID. Then the app instructs her to submit a short video of her own face. The face recognition technology provided by a voter's iPhone or Android device compares the video with the photo ID. The personal information on the ID will be matched with West Virginia's voter database. Once the review is completed, voters can make their selections and confirm their votes by fingerprint or face recognition.
Hilary Braseth, Director of Product Design at Voatz, said that the company is providing the manual submission of submitted information by employees in addition to the technology review process. The company does not store personal information once a voter's identity has been confirmed.
Votes are stored in a private block chain – essentially a database backed up with complex computational algorithms – and unlocked by secretaries when the polls are completed.
"When they take the votes out of the blockchain, they're immediately printed on a paper ballot – as well as the look and behavior of voters on election day," said Braseth. "And then these country-level paperworks are fed into the bottom-up rulers."
Voters from abroad who have used Voatz will receive an anonymised copy of the ballot they have submitted remotely. Another copy will be made available to the Warner office for audit purposes. Several independent external auditors are expected to carry out an evaluation of the pilot project in the following months and to produce a report by mid-spring.
So far, two voters have reported difficulty using the app, Queen said, but the process was otherwise smooth. In response to security questions, Queen said West Virginia had no plans to expand mobile voting beyond the relatively small foreign population.
"Secretary Warner has and will never argue that this is a solution for mainstream voting," said Queen.
Voatz voting is probably safer than e-mail absentee voting, said Maurice Turner, election security expert at the Washington Center for Democracy and Technology think-center. And since the system is based on face recognition technology made by Apple and other manufacturers of pre-tested equipment, the verification method seems to be flawless. However, he was far less sure than to make a paper choice personally.
Even though employees analyze the photo identification and user-submitted video, this does not prevent anyone from trying to impersonate a voter by digitally manipulating photo identification before uploading, Turner said.
"It does not authenticate the voter, but the person using the app," he said.
Other security experts have said that simply introducing a web-enabled mobile device into the process increases the basic risk of hacking or interception.
And while cryptography is currently being used to keep remote controlled ballots secret in the blockchain, future technologies that could thwart this protection may ultimately expose the identity and electoral choices of voters.
Yet, as Turner notes, since many aspects of consumer life are being digitized, it is no surprise that voters would expect the same from their commitment to the citizens' process.
"We come to a time when the average voter is someone who grew up with digital devices," he said. "If we can accept that, we can plan it accordingly. If we assume that voters are switching to mobile devices, we can think about what policies apply, what regulations should be in place to ensure that this is possible – and what security measures need to be integrated into those platforms. "