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Communities test out mobile voting to see if it can help build trust in elections

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Posted at 7:32 AM, Nov 05, 2021

CHANDLER, Ariz. — There are few objects that we have instilled more trust in than our phones. They hold our money, our tickets, and help us consume news and information.

But can our faith in our devices run deep enough to entrust them with our role in a system where, for many, faith has been tested?

"(In) 2018, one party was frustrated. (In) 2020, another party was frustrated, and so you have this sort of underlying distrust of what is supposed to be the hallmark of a constitutional republic which is what we live," said Chandler, Arizona, Vice Mayor Mark Stewart.

His community is taking part in a pilot program that will look at what could be the future of voting.

“You should have instant results within 24 hours of an election. It shouldn’t take three weeks," Stewart said.

The Phoenix suburb is holding a mock election, where people can cast ballots through a mobile voting app called “Voatz."

Voters will be asked questions like whether they like mobile voting and whether they trust it, Stewart said.

Those living in Chandler will be able to download the app and take part in the pilot program to test out mobile voting and see if it could be an option in the future.

Users take a picture of their government ID and record a selfie video, which Voatz uses to verify their identity.

They can then vote right on their phones.

“I’m expecting we’re going to know our results immediately. As soon as the light is switched off. We’ll go and look at the ledger and we’ll know where all the data is immediately. That doesn’t exist today with our style of voting," Stewart said.

Voatz says its app has been used in 87 elections in the U.S. and in other countries since 2017.

Denver offered it as an option for military members overseas in its 2019 mayoral race. In 2020, a Utah County ran a pilot program letting those overseas or disabled vote with the app.

Voatz and mobile voting, in general, have their critics.

In 2020, an MIT study said its researchers found potential weaknesses in Voatz’s security. Voatz called the report "flawed" and said researchers used an outdated version of the app.

The company says there has never been a successful hack of their system, even though people have tried.

“In almost each one of our elections over the past few years, we see some or the other kind of attacks," said Voatz co-founder Nimit Sawhney. "In some cases, there are multiple attacks happening. We’ve collected a lot of data over the years and so far, no one has managed to kind of break into the system.”

Sawhney says the app runs on blockchain technology. When a vote is entered into the blockchain, it cannot be changed. The information is also not held in one location, like a county clerk's office, but in countless locations across the internet. Experts say that makes it nearly impossible to hack.

Sawhney says in communities that have used the Voatz app, each vote generates a paper ballot as well.

There are other companies that are creating their own mobile voting systems using blockchain technology, like Cleveland-based company Votem.

“Chandler is going to use this pilot program with Voatz and try to break that system and prove it wrong. If we can’t prove it wrong, then we might have something, but again, it’s not two years from now, it’s not four, it’s probably eight, 10, 12 years from now," Stewart said.

While Vice-Mayor Stewart says the purpose of their pilot is to see if an app and the technology behind it can be a practical option in the future, it’s also about whether it can help a system at the core of our country not become contentious.

“If in a small little way we can build more trust in elections, or if we can find a better way to improve voter turnout, to make it easier for somebody that’s handicapped, so they don’t have to go to the polling location, or their ballot got lost in the mail, whatever that may be, if we can figure out a way to make that better and more accessible for people, I think that improves the life for everybody," Stewart said.