CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — Just 9 percent of West Virginia’s 8,000-plus active-duty military serving overseas voted in the 2016 Presidential Election, primarily due to the great difficulty in casting their vote for the leaders they take orders from.

However, with a new pilot program in the Mountain State, that process should become a bit easier.

Harrison and Monongalia counties were chosen to be a part of the pilot program — a mobile application-based voting process that uses biometric and blockchain technology for security. The program is the first of its kind in the U.S. to use this type of program.

“West Virginia has such a high percentage of people serving in the military,” West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner said. “I wanted to make sure they have a chance to vote for those leaders who are sending them into harm’s way.”

While the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) allowing deployed miltiary personnel to vote has been in place since 1986, Warner can speak to just how difficult it was for military members to vote from their overseas bases.

“Think of yourself out on a hillside in Afghanistan or on a submarine under the polar ice cap or off of North Korea, it’s hard to get U.S. Mail to those locations. It’s hard to get to fax machines and that sort of thing, so the mobile voting was the way to go for our soldiers,” he said.

That’s why UOCAVA participation has historically been so low, and West Virginia isn’t the only state to experience that. Nationally, only 13 percent of UOCAVA voters submitted a ballot in the 2016 general election.

“We, the Secretary especially, thinks it’s of the optimal importance to get those voters’ votes,” said Donald Kersey, elections director and deputy legal counsel for the Secretary of State’s Office. “They’re protecting our country, they are sacrificing their lives for democracy, and we want to know how they feel about our electoral process. We want them to be a part of our electoral process, so the best way to do that is to help them cast their ballot easier.”

That’s where Voatz comes in.

Voatz, a Boston-based startup, is focused on making voting both easier and more secure. The app uses facial recognition through biometric and blockchain technology to ensure voter safety.

“You verify your identity with an ID card and take a facial recognition — a selfie basically — and then the software confirms that you are the same person as in the government ID,” Warner said. “When you vote, you again either take a selfie or use your thumbprint to verify that you are the one who cast that ballot.”

Those blockchain encryption keys are then hand delivered to the county clerks Tuesday by staff of the mobile-focused voting company Voatz.

“On Election Night, the county clerks in those two offices will have the ability to insert what we call the security key, and then the Voatz app on the administrative side of the computer, pulls the information from the digital lock box onto the computer itself,” Kersey said. “The votes will then be reproduced onto an electronic voting machine, a ballot is cast and then it’s counted just like the other votes on Election Night.”

Testing new voting processes and technology can be challenging though. That’s why Harrison County Clerk Susan Thomas and Monongalia County Clerk Carey Blaney are helping to pave the way with this new voting platform.

“That’s supposed to be a very secure way of keeping this stuff secure,” Thomas said. “I believe in the future, probably not in my lifetime but everyone will be voting similar to this. It may even be something different because technology changes so fast.”

Kersey said the two counties were chosen primarily for their record in helping to promote new voting methods.

Also, since Thomas serves as the president of the West Virginia County Clerk’s Association, Kersey felt she can in turn spread her experience with the program to other county clerks throughout the state.

“We wanted have her say in this,” he said. “We wanted to have her personal knowledge of how it works to advocate either for or against it.”

As for how the Secretary of State’s Office will roll this out to all 55 counties, Kersey said is yet to be determined.

“We are going to address that after this election,” he said. “We’re going to have a third party come in and audit the system itself, look at the programming, look at the blockchain, look at the system overall and see if there were any vulnerabilities. If so, can they be addressed immediately? Give us a report of the security and the election itself, and if there are vulnerabilities, that they can be addressed way before the General Election so it can be tested and reaudited if necessary so that all of the counties can have confidence that this kind of system is secure for the purpose of UOCAVA voting.”

Eventually, they think this technology could be used by much more than just the few dozen people who are testing the program this year. Perhaps down the line, every member of the military or overseas voter could have an opportunity to use it.

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