CHARLESTON, W.Va. - For more than 150 years, West Virginians have answered the call to duty. Known to have one of the highest rates of military service per capita, West Virginia’s uniformed services members continue the tradition of military service to our country that began when the state was founded in 1863.
Like so many West Virginian’s, Secretary of State Mac Warner is also a veteran. Secretary Warner attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and retired from the U.S. Army as a Lt. Colonel after 23 years in the U.S. Army. During his time in the service, Secretary Warner experienced firsthand how difficult it is for uniformed services members to participate in elections using traditional absentee paper ballots. In fact, because postal service was so unreliable in the Middle East, Secretary Warner was not able to vote in the 2012 and 2014 primary elections.
With that experience in mind, one of Secretary Warner’s first projects after taking office in January of 2017 was to investigate options to improve voter participation by military personnel deployed to remote areas that lacked reliable postal service or access to a printer, scanner or fax machine. The Secretary sought a solution to a major problem. According to the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission, nearly 300,000 overseas voters requested ballots but were not able to return them to their county clerks back home in the 2016 elections.
“I knew that we could do better to provide West Virginia military personnel all over the world with the opportunity to vote. As Secretary of State, I was now in a position to do something about that,” Warner said. “So, I put together a team of staff members from our Elections and Technology Divisions to explore how we could address that challenge.”
After researching previously available options, the Secretary’s team identified that most electronic ballot delivery technology required access to a desktop computer, printer and scanner, all of which present significant barriers to overseas voters, especially those in combat zones or engaged in covert operations. About a year later, Warner’s team was presented with an opportunity by Tusk Montgomery Philanthropies, which offered to fund a pilot project to enhance ballot accessibility to uniformed services members and overseas citizens. Tusk connected West Virginia with a Boston, MA-based company called Voatz, Inc.
Voatz has developed a secure mobile voting application that allows voters to receive, vote, and return their ballots electronically. The application also utilizes blockchain technology to store electronically submitted ballots until election night, and requires a heightened standard of identity verification for users than traditional absentee ballot processes. This project is unprecedented in United States history, being the first mobile voting application and first use of blockchain technology in a federal election. There were, of course, substantial security requirements by Secretary Warner that included utilizing federal standards for software development, regular maintenance and security upgrades, in-depth penetration testing, source code auditing and audits of the system’s cloud infrastructure. After surpassing those requirements, the pilot moved forward.
In a two-county initial pilot that occurred in last May’s Primary Election, the Secretary of State’s Office and the county clerks in Harrison County (Susan Thomas) and Monongalia County (Carye Blaney) hosted the nation’s first ever opportunity for a voter to vote via an application on their mobile phone or tablet.
“Susan and Cayre are two of the state’s most experienced county clerks. They understood the challenge we were trying to address. They stepped up and helped us host the first test pilot of the military mobile voting solution,” said Warner.
Warner said that voters from six different countries used the app in the Primary Election. Post-election security audits by several independent and widely respected technology auditing companies showed that the technology provided a secure platform for voting and an alternative to the traditional absentee paper ballot. Voatz’s app, which also utilizes biometric facial recognition software and thumbprint safeguards to ensure the identity of the voter, increased the confidence of the auditors. In short, the nation’s first mobile voting app test pilot was a success.
Following the success of the initial pilot, Secretary Warner announced at the state’s first Election Security Conference in Morgantown in July that this technology is available to all 55 counties for the General Election. More than 160 county clerks, their staff and elections officials attended that 2-day event and had the opportunity to discuss any concerns over the security and management of a mobile voting solution. After presenting the results of the audits and showing the security and identity verification steps involved, most counties were pleased with the effort West Virginia is making to provide the same level of service to those protecting our country.
“We are all cautiously optimistic that mobile voting for military personnel will allow them to vote securely no matter where they may be deployed,” Warner said.
For the General Election, eligible uniformed services members and overseas voters in any of the following 24 counties will have the option to vote on their cell phone or mobile tablet: Berkeley, Cabell, Grant, Greenbrier, Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Jefferson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Marshall, Monongalia, Monroe, Morgan, Nicholas, Ohio, Preston, Putnam, Raleigh, Roane, Summers, Wayne and Wetzel. Of course, UOCAVA voters may still choose to receive their ballots via traditional absentee paper ballot process, email or fax. This new technology is merely an option in those counties.
Absentee voting begins Friday, September 21st, and the ballot must be submitted by no later than 7:30 p.m. on November 6, 2018. UOCAVA voters have until October 31, 2018 to submit their Federal Post Card Application to register to vote and/or request an absentee ballot to their county clerk. They will receive their ballot within 24-hours of the clerk’s receipt of the application.
To learn more about the Voatz application and see the voter’s experience from start to finish, please watch this short video WVSOS Mobile Voting App.
For more information on voting absentee for uniformed services members or overseas voters, please contact your county clerk. You may also call the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Election Division at (304) 558-6000.
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