When West Virginia’s secretary of state assumed office early last year, he set out to solve a problem: Find a way to make voting easier for several thousand West Virginians serving overseas or living abroad.
The traditional method, where service members or expatriates request ballots by mail and submit absentee votes, isn’t tamper-proof and relies on sometimes-spotty postal services. In 2016, for instance, 16% of active-duty U.S. military personnel who requested ballots didn’t receive them, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program.
So in a pilot program this May, West Virginia became the first state to let some of its voters cast ballots for a federal election on their phones using blockchain—the technology behind the cryptocurrency boom and a theoretically hack-proof means of logging transactions or, in this case, votes.
For the pilot, West Virginia residents from two counties who are serving overseas or living abroad were given access to their ballot through a mobile app for the May 8 House and Senate primaries, said Sheila Nix, president of Tusk/Montgomery Philanthropies, one of the organizations the state worked with on the trial run. The eligible voters were granted access to vote in March to abide by federal rules mandating a 45-day period for overseas residents to cast their ballots.
The blockchain of votes for those two counties is currently being audited, a process expected to finish as soon as this week, said Donald Kersey, the elections director for the West Virginia secretary of state’s office. If the audit confirms the results as expected, West Virginia would continue the pilot in the November general election with funds from Tusk/Montgomery, giving all counties the chance to opt in. (The mobile voting would be available only for overseas residents.)
So how does the system work? Mr. Kersey likens the blockchain voting structure to a locked spreadsheet, where viewers can see the data but can’t alter it. In an election, a person would submit his or her vote and that information would be logged and would be difficult for someone to change. Even if someone did succeed in changing a ballot, each of those votes is kept together in the same document, or chain, and every edit made, whether by a voter or a nefarious actor, is logged.
“It’s real time,” Mr. Kersey says. “That’s the best part about it.”
To use the mobile-voting app in the West Virginia primaries, overseas voters needed to take a photo of their ID and a short video of themselves moving their eyes. Once facial recognition was confirmed, those people could vote on their phone by entering their information and using either a personal identification number, facial recognition or their thumbprint.
Even if the West Virginia effort proves successful, it is unlikely that mobile blockchain voting will supplant the national patchwork of ballot methods in the immediate future.
While blockchain has been used for small voting populations, Nir Kshetri, a professor in the department of management at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, says it won’t easily scale. Though blockchain can be used to increase access to mobile voting, giving a secure and auditable system to track ballots, he says the large amount of energy required to authenticate and validate the blockchains makes it infeasible as a national solution for the moment.
In West Virginia, officials are looking at blockchain as a means to improve participation among overseas residents, but not the future of in-state voting.
“It’s not the solution” on the statewide or nationwide level yet, says Mr. Kersey, “but it’s a solution for us.”