Emerging Tech

Seattle’s vote-by-phone system could be a game changer, but only if it’s secure

When King County, Washington, voters cast a ballot for King Conservation District Board of Supervisors this year, they’ll be able to do so by smartphone, if they wish. While the county, which includes the city of Seattle, has about 1.2 million voters, in the past only between 1 and 3 percent usually participate in these types of elections. Supporters of the move are hoping it will empower more people to vote, but critics worry about the security of such a system.

By inputting their name and birthday via their phone’s internet browser, King County voters can log in to the portal. They choose and verify their candidate, then use their phone’s touchscreen to submit their signature.

Washington is a vote-by-mail state, which uses signature verification for its paper ballots. The signature verification by phone would work much the same way. Because so many residents send their ballots through the mail or via dropbox, a fair amount are rejected because the signatures don’t match those on record. Not everyone signs their name the same way that they did on their voter registration card. Signing via touchscreen might make scrawls even less likely to look the same.

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Tusk Philanthropy, a nonprofit that wants to expand mobile voting, is funding the pilot. In 2018 and 2019, it helped West Virginia, Denver, and Utah run similar vote-by-phone programs. These were mainly focused on smaller communities, like deployed members of the military. Several states already allow some overseas citizens to vote by mail or fax.

Still, turnout tends to be smaller than the general population and harder to count. The West Virginia election was statewide and had 999 different ballot styles, Sheila Nix, president of Tusk Philanthropy, told Digital Trends. “So, those elections were actually — even though there were fewer people — they were more complicated,” she said.

For the past pilots, Tusk Philanthropy worked with Voatz, a technology company that created a voting app. Nix said an independent firm, ShiftState Security, audited Voatz technology, but Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has noted that Voatz hasn’t published the results. A number of technology professionals have expressed concern over Voatz’s app and voting by phone in general. Democracy Live, a Seattle-based voting company, created the technology for the King County election, and Nix said ShiftState audited that company as well.

In addition, the National Cybersecurity Center will conduct a post-vote review, comparing a paper record of votes against digital receipts sent to voters and the anonymized blockchain records. However, Dr. Duncan Buell, a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina, told NPR that such a review may merely be double-checking votes that were already altered as the result of a cyberattack.

Nix said she realizes that not everyone will be comfortable using the new technology to vote. “It’s not intended, in the short term, to be a substitute for anything,” she said. But people with visual impairments may prefer to use their phones’ accessibility features to vote privately. Tusk Philanthropy is planning on funding twice as many pilots this year as in 2019, with a goal of between 35 and 50 in the next five years — just in time for current, digital-native 14-year-olds to participate.

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