West Virginia officials want other states to adopt online voting for deployed troops

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West Virginia was the first state to allow a mobile voting app option for military members — and officials there are hoping others will follow.

In 2018, the state offered overseas and military voters the option of using a mobile phone or tablet to vote in an election. In the general election that year, 144 voters stationed in 31 different countries were able to vote using the technology.

The mobile voting app was the result of West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner’s interest in breaking down barriers preventing servicemembers from easy access to the polls. During almost three decades in the Army, Warner experienced the difficulties of voting overseas.

Roughly 200,000 Americans are deployed overseas and in 2016, less than 20 percent of active duty troops voted, Warner said in an op-ed submission earlier this month.

“The less than 20% figure weighs on me heavily,” he wrote. “This is an appalling statistic, and one that should be personally offensive to every American. The current COVID-19 pandemic should serve as the catalyst to leverage technology to correct the disenfranchisement of the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our democracy.”

As of 2018, 82 percent of military absentee voters used mail to return their ballots, which was the most common submission method, partly due to states restricting it only to mail, according to a report from the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

Email is currently the most popular electronic option with 12 percent of military absentees using it to return their ballot.

And mail, email, or fax options can make it difficult to vote as a servicemember, especially when deployed — mail services can be unreliable and email and fax services insecure. These issues often discourage military members from voting altogether, according to Warner.

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But 2019 research from the University of Chicago suggests that a mobile voting option could help confront these problems.

They found that having the mobile voting option in the 2018 General Election made servicemembers three to five percentage points more likely to cast a ballot in W. Va. — and about half of them would not have voted otherwise.

Nationwide, 5 percent of military voters used an online website or portal like the mobile voting app in W. Va in 2018, “despite extremely limited availability,” according to the FVAP report.

This year, W. Va. expanded the law to also allow online voting for individuals with physical disabilities who cannot participate in person or vote a paper ballot without assistance.

The June 9th Primary Election saw 180 voters in 26 countries on the virtual voting portal, 25 of which were citizens with qualifying disabilities, according to a press release.

Warner also said the virtual voting is more secure than the federal standard of transmitting absentee ballots via fax or email, which additionally present accessibility, transmission, and voter identification problems.

The technology is hosted by Seattle, Wash. based company Democracy Live, and is funded by Tusk Montgomery Philanthropies at no cost to the state. Democracy Live was founded in 2007 to assist the federal government with absentee ballot security.

Warner said the app is hosted in the Amazon AWS cloud, which is already used by the CIA and FBI to store secure information.

The mobile portal uses facial recognition and thumb print verification to verify the user’s identity at each stage of the process and has undergone numerous third-party security assessments, according to a press release.

Since 2018, the City and County of Denver followed suit by allowing the same voting solution for overseas military members in its 2019 municipal election and runoff.

In that election, they didn’t see an increase in participation from military and overseas voters, but almost half of those who participated used the mobile application.

“We included a survey of the voters who used it to get their thoughts about how it worked for them, and 100 percent of the voters who completed the survey said they would prefer to vote using the application in elections from then on,” said Jocelyn Bucaro, the Director of Elections in Denver.

She said the interface itself was generally easy for voters to use — they just download the application, called Voatz, onto their mobile device and start going through identity verification steps, which Bucaro said are more rigorous than with traditional means of remote voting.

In comparison to only needing to enter a name, address, and date of birth or last four digits of a social security number, the Voatz app requires a photograph of a government issued photo ID along with a ten-second selfie video and uses facial recognition to confirm a match.

The only difficulty, she said, was that the facial identification was not working for everyone. The Denver Elections Division shared that concern with the application’s developers as room for improvement.

Before the state of Colorado considers using Voatz, Bucaro said they want the Federal Elections Assistance Commission to certify its security. The EAC conducts rigorous testing and certification using publicly audited standards for voting systems used in U.S. elections.

“Most states, but not all, require EAC certification to use voting systems in their elections,” she said. “Colorado is not one of those states, but because this is a very different type of voting method the state felt that they should submit to that kind of certification standard.”

The EAC is yet to have a standard for certifying mobile applications such as Voatz, but Bucaro has had conversations with them about developing some so voters can feel a level of security and assurance when casting their ballots remotely.

EAC officials did not respond to requests for comment. When asked about the security and potential for wider use of the Voatz app, the Pentagon referred questions to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which referred questions back to West Virginia officials.

Jackson and Umatilla counties in Oregon, Utah County, Utah, and Delaware have also started offering the option, said Jennifer Gardner, deputy press secretary for the W. Va. Secretary of State’s Office in an email.

West Virginia is continuing to push for solutions to increase voting options and access to the ballot box for those who face voting barriers. Earlier this year, Warner sent letters to Congressional leadership and Defense Secretary Mark Esper asking them to fund the development and adoption of electronic voting for military members and overseas citizens.

“We hope leaders in Washington D.C. will fund initiatives to solve the dilemma of voting from remote locations,” Warner said in a press release, “especially for our deployed military who put their lives on the line to protect the very democracy from which they are often precluded from participating.”

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