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Is This Experiment in Digital Democracy Too Crazy to Work?



A startup called Voatz wants to build an unhackable way to vote over the internet. What could possibly go wrong?

Voting in the U.S. is an intentionally high-friction endeavor. Elections are held at in-person polling centers, open during hours when most people are working, on a day that hasn’t been made a national holiday. They’re governed by strict voter ID laws, designed to weed out imposters and in many cases succeeding mostly in disenfranchising people of color. And they’re often executed using decidedly low-tech methods—with paper ballots, susceptible to user error (never forget: hanging chads) and (accidental or deliberate) miscounts.Efficiency, some have argued, is not the point of the voting process. Security is. But this election season, West Virginia is trying out a new, blockchain-based voting system that officials hope can achieve both, simultaneously. And experts are calling it a “horrific idea.”In April, the state began asking some citizens serving in the overseas military to trade in mailed absentee ballots for digital ones, submitted through an app run by a Boston-based startup called Voatz. No one is forced to switch over to the new system, but two counties opted in for a May primary pilot, and overseas military from every county are eligible to use it for the November election. The votes will be converted into paper ballots and recorded with the other absentees. They’ll all be counted together in November.

The process itself isn’t all that complicated: Blockchain is, pared down to its simplest elements, an online database of transactions. In the context of an election, those transactions are votes; the blockchain server itself is more like a virtual ballot box and an election administrator all in one. Identities are confirmed by selfie and state-issued ID, and then double-anonymized, according to Voatz, “first by the smartphone, and second by the blockchain server network.”West Virginia is the first U.S. state to attempt a blockchain-run election of this scale. But Voatz has run more than 30 pilot elections (ranging from the 2018 MassDems Convention to student council elections) since its launch in 2015, recording more than 75,000 votes in the process. After West Virginia’s May primary pilot, “four audits of various components of the tool, including its cloud and blockchain infrastructure, revealed no problems,” CNN reported.Worldwide, trust in this new approach is growing. The Japanese city of Tsukuba became the first in the country to introduce their own version of blockchain-based voting this year, also for overseas military service members. Voters verify their identity in the system using Japan’s version of social security identifiers and weigh in not on elected officials, but on proposals for local social development programs. In Moscow, city residents can cast votes on some local municipal decisions (like street names) using a blockchain-based app called Active Citizen. Switzerland and Ukraine are trying versions this year, too.

Blockchain is being applied to voting now because it’s often considered inherently un-hackable, since its data is stored on multiple servers that all verify the authenticity of the blocks (in Voatz’ case, the votes) and copy them onto the chain of blocks that make up a blockchain. Those blocks (again, votes!) are supposed to be un-erasable—and unchangeable.

Voatz insists that their technology has been been vetted by third-party auditors, including a public HackerOne program; a pen-testing system; and the software company Security Innovation. Unlike Moscow’s Active Citizen app, which, as CityLab reported in April, has the Moscow government serving as an “authority node” and could thus be considered a tool more of propaganda than empowerment, Voatz’ system is truly decentralized: The West Virginia government doesn’t have the power to alter votes, only count them.

And unlike bitcoin’s permissionless blockchain model, which allows anyone to act as a verifier, an independent vetting process decides who can node-check for West Virginia. “Typically, these nodes would include all the stakeholders in an election such as the major political parties, NGOs, non-profits and independent auditors, etc,” reads Voatz’ FAQ. In other words, official people, not GRU hackers dialing in from their couches in Russia. (Voatz wouldn’t comment directly on this story, citing a busy pre-election season.)Still, many critics of the West Virginia blockchain-voting plan are extremely dubious of the whole idea. There’s the word blockchain, for one—a now-omnipresent but still largely mysterious technology often associated with doomed disruption projects. Also, there’s the name Voatz. It’s “the Theranos of voting!” software developer Buzz Andersen wrote on Twitter in the days after Voatz’ launch. Code for: a soon-to-be-humiliating, high-tech scam.It’s true that taking things online might seem like the least secure option for the future of voting. Election-system hackery has appeared in almost half of U.S. states, and Russian voter manipulators are mopping up indictments. (After security architect Kevin Beaumont posted a critical Twitter thread raising eyebrows at the fact that a former Voatz software developer once worked in Russia, the company released a statement saying that this staffer was just an intern who happened to be Russian.)

But others have voiced concerns about the technology itself. According to a new paper from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy, blockchain’s vaunted security measures could kick in too late: “If malware on a voter’s device alters a vote before it ever reaches a blockchain, the immutability of the blockchain fails to provide the desired integrity, and the voter may never know of the alteration.”This was put a bit more simply by Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who told CNN: “It’s internet voting on people’s horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paper record of the vote.”Such fears are not unique to a blockchain-based system, says Ari Juels, a professor of technology and computer science at Cornell Tech: Any internet-hosted voting platform would be similarly vulnerable. “It’s very challenging to secure users’ devices,” Juels said. “There’s a risk that even if the integrity of the voting infrastructure remains intact, users’ devices get hacked or compromised through things like spear phishing campaigns.”Voatz addresses this criticism on their website, saying they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure devices aren’t compromised in the first place. “Only certain classes of smartphones that are equipped with the latest security features are allowed to be used,” their FAQ reads.Offering more paths to voter enfranchisement for members of the military should, on its face, be a popular goal. “There is nobody that deserves the right to vote any more than the guys that are out there, and the women that are out there, putting their lives on the line for us,” West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner told CNN.

But fears around election security, both founded and less so, have become weapons in a larger political battle over voters’ rights and disenfranchisement. The Trump administration has consistently raised the issue of rampant voting fraud, without any evidence to support it. “[T]he lie is so mesmerizing, it takes off like a wildfire,” wrote Carol Anderson in a recent New York Times op-ed, “so that the irrational fear that someone might vote who shouldn’t means that hundreds of thousands who should can’t cast ballots.”

When it comes to devising a safe way to vote over the internet, the stakes are high: Even if only a small number of users in West Virginia’s blockchain pilot were hacked, it would potentially undermine trust in the integrity of the system of a whole. Indeed, the fear that our votes are vulnerable can work to undermine democracy almost as well as hacking itself. “The integrity of the election can be undermined,” said Juels, “because people can be attuned to anecdotes about the process being [compromised].”

This article was originally published by CityLab.


Fact-check: Is West Virginia’s Summersville Lake the Clearest in the East?



Does West Virginia have the clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River? Gov. Jim Justice said so in a tweet.

In the Aug. 17 tweet, Justice said, “According to SCUBA divers, Summersville Lake is clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River. This led to earning its name as ‘The Little Bahamas of the East.’ Check it out for yourself today!” (SCUBA is capitalized because it is an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.)

Credit: West Virginia Governor’s Office/Twitter

Summersville Lake is a man-made lake in the southern part of West Virginia. The Huntington District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the lake in the 1960s.

Justice’s tweet links to an article on, published by the West Virginia Tourism Office, an agency of the West Virginia Department of Commerce.

The article describes the lake as great for swimming, boating, and underwater exploration. The destination has dive sites where rock formations can be seen 100 feet underwater.

However, the WV Tourism article did not offer a specific source for the claim. We contacted the office, and they did not respond.

When we reached out to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Huntington District, Toby Wood, project manager for Summersville Lake, said that the label “The Little Bahamas of the East” originated with a SCUBA magazine.

“We consider that a claim-to-fame, and we repeat it often,” Wood said.

In Google searches, we found references to that nickname attributed to Skin Diver magazine but did not locate the original article.

More broadly, however, Wood has “no way of knowing if the lake is the ‘the clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River,’ as the governor claimed.”

We reached out to Peter Oliver, editor-in-chief of the National Association of Underwater Instructors’ magazine, Sources, and he said that from his experience, Summersville Lake has the same color as most lakes and reservoirs.

“You’d be OK, I think, to call Summersville ‘one of the clearest,’ but it has that green tint common to almost all freshwater lakes and reservoirs. The water in the Florida spring systems is what we usually call ‘gin clear’ and since the water does not stand in the small lakes but flows out it stays clear,” Oliver said.

Meanwhile, Christine McCrehin of the American Water Resources Association told PolitiFact that “her organization does not track the information about the clarity of lakes.”

Our ruling

Justice tweeted, “According to SCUBA divers, Summersville Lake is the clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River.”

This facts on this claim are more opaque than the governor lets on. There’s no question that Summersville Lake attracts divers who appreciate its clear waters, and there is evidence that it has long been called “the Little Bahamas of the East.”

Justice’s tweet went beyond that, saying specifically that the lake is the clearest in the eastern United States. An Army Corps of Engineers and several independent experts were unable to point to evidence for that first-place ranking.

The statement contains an element of truth, but it offers a specific No. 1 ranking without a comprehensive study to back it up. We rate it Mostly False.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact-check: Did Joe Manchin stick with Hillary Clinton after controversial coal comment?



Appearing at a rally with President Donald Trump in Charleston, W.Va., Patrick Morrisey — the Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin — riled up the crowd by invoking a particularly embarrassing remark by Hillary Clinton, the 2016 presidential nominee of Manchin’s party.

“Joe Manchin strongly supported and voted for Hillary Clinton after she said, ‘We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work,’” Morrisey told the crowd after Trump turned over the podium on Aug. 21, 2018.

Morrissey’s statement has a basis in truth, but it glosses over some context. (We’re not addressing the portion of Morrisey’s remark about how Manchin voted, since ballots are cast privately, making it impossible for us to verify independently.)

What Clinton said

On March 13, 2016, as she was running for president, Clinton appeared at a televised town hall in Columbus, Ohio.

At one point during the event, Clinton said, “I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity — using clean, renewable energy as the key — into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

She continued, “And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”

While the latter portion of her comments communicated empathy for coal-mining families, her remark that “were going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” drew intense criticism, not only from Americans in coal country but also with her allies, who said Clinton’s phrasing seemed to trivialize the seriousness of coal workers’ economic dilemma.

Manchin’s support for Clinton

So how did this episode affect Manchin’s support for Clinton? Let’s review.

Manchin and Clinton had known each other for years, and he endorsed her on CBS’s Face the Nation on April 19, 2015. “I support Hillary Clinton. I know Hillary Clinton, and I find her to be warm and engaging, compassionate and tough. All of the above, ” Manchin said.

After the town hall remark, MetroNews reported that a senior advisor to Manchin was “troubled and concerned by the comments and reached out directly to the Secretary and her senior advisor for energy.”

In June 2018, Manchin told Politico that he repeatedly threatened to revoke his support for Clinton after her remark.

“First, Manchin told Bill Clinton that he would withdraw his support, as the former president pleaded with him not to,” Politico reported, “Then Hillary Clinton called him. ‘She said, ‘Please don’t. Let me come to West Virginia, I need to explain.’ I said, ‘That’s a bad idea, you shouldn’t come,’” Manchin recounted.

But the two sides reconciled, and on March 15 — two days after the town hall — Clinton formally reacted to the fallout from her remark, sending a letter to Manchin.

“Simply put, I was mistaken in my remarks,” she wrote. “I wanted to make the point that, as you know too well, while coal will be part of the energy mix for years to come, both in the U.S. and around the world, we have already seen a long-term decline in American coal jobs and a recent wave of bankruptcies as a result of a changing energy market — and we need to do more to support the workers and families facing these challenges.”

She also said in the letter that she supported the Miners Protection Act backed by Manchin, which would provide health benefits and pensions for former miners and family members.

“I pledge to you that I will focus my team and my Administration on bringing jobs to Appalachia, especially jobs producing the carbon capture technology we need for the future,” Clinton wrote.

About six weeks later, on May 2, Clinton came to West Virginia for a roundtable at the Williamson Health and Wellness Center. At that event, she talked with Manchin and a former coal miner, Bo Copley.

“I don’t know how to explain it, other than what I said was totally out of context from what I meant because I have been talking about helping coal country for a very long time and I did put out a plan last summer,” Clinton said. “It was a misstatement, because what I was saying is that the way things are going now we are going to continue to lose jobs. What I said was that is going to happen unless we take action to try to help and prevent it.”

At the roundtable, Manchin also expressed his discomfort with Clinton’s initial statement.

“I have two ways to go when that statement came out,” Manchin said. “I could have said, ‘I thought she was my friend, by golly I’m done, I’m gone.’ Now that’s not the way we were raised, I wasn’t raised that way. So, I said I’m going to call” her instead.

He added, “If I thought that was in her heart, if I thought she wanted to eliminate one job in West Virginia, I wouldn’t be sitting here, and she wouldn’t be sitting here if she felt that way.”.

Manchin’s office did not respond to an inquiry, but CNN reported on June 17, 2016, that Manchin remained one of the Democratic Senators who were “backing” Clinton for president.

And in the 2018 Politico interview, Manchin called his decision to stick by Clinton “a mistake. It was a mistake politically.” But the article added that to Manchin, “her $20 billion commitment to his state was too much to pass up. ‘Is this about me? Or trying to help a part of my state that’s never recovered and is having a tough time?’”

Our ruling

Morrisey said Manchin “strongly supported and voted for Hillary Clinton after she said, ‘We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work.’”

It’s worth noting some of the context that Morrisey left out — that Clinton had also expressed empathy for coal miners’ economic challenges in her initial remark, that she later clarified what she had meant to say, and that Manchin had worked to convince Clinton of why her remarks had been unacceptable.

Still, none of that changes the gist of Morrisey’s assertion — that Clinton said the remark, and that Manchin remained in her camp through the election (while we know he endorsed her, we do not know for sure he voted for her, as ballots are secret). We rate the statement Mostly True.

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This is Why You Should Pay Attention to West Virginia’s Impeachment Trials



Tuesday morning, 30 men and four women will walk into the chamber of the West Virginia Senate to participate in historic proceedings– proceedings that haven’t been conducted in the state since 1875, not long after its founding.

Those 34 Senators will take an oath to become 34 jurors and hear evidence in cases for the impeachment of three current and one former member of the West Virginia Supreme Court.

“I think it’s one of the most grave things that a Senate can undertake,” Senate Judiciary Chair Sen. Charles Trump said just hours after the body had adopted the rules of the upcoming proceedings last month.

“Think about what’s at stake? The result of an impeachment proceeding or trial could be the removal of someone from office who has been elected by the citizens of the state,” he said. “It’s a huge deal.”

The three sitting and one recently retired member of the state’s highest court are accused of a variety of missteps— from spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars to renovate their offices to align with personal taste to overpaying retired judges who continued to hear cases to using state property for personal gain.

The sitting justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals before the impeachment proceedings began including, from left to right, Robin Jean Davis, who has retired, Menis Ketchum, who has retired, Allen Loughry, who has been suspended without pay, Beth Walker and Margaret Workman. Davis, Loughry, Walker and Workman face impeachment in the state Senate. Photo: West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals

But the details of their malfeasance, while important to the trials and the future of three of the four’s standings with the court, are likely of only passing interest to those outside of West Virginia’s boundaries. Judicial experts, however, note the importance of the proceedings, particularly in the nation’s current political climate, and this is why they say you should be paying attention to what happens in West Virginia in the coming hours, days and potentially, weeks.


It’s a term not unfamiliar to many Americans, especially those who are avid watchers of politics or the legal system. Precedent. It’s a principle or rule laid out to guide decision making in future, similar circumstances, and according to Dr. G. Terry Madonna, Director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, that is exactly what West Virginia lawmakers are doing.

“The experiments that go on at the state level and the activities that go on at the state level are very, very important nationally,” Madonna said. “They often don’t get covered in that vein, but they set the precedent; they set the practices for the future.”

In fact, West Virginia Senators had very little precedent to follow as they conceived their own rules for impeachment proceedings.

In 1875, the Senate conducted impeachment trials for a West Virginia auditor and treasurer, according to Trump, and he and his staff looked to the rules laid out before the body in those proceedings to guide them today.

More than 100 years later, in 1989, the upper chamber drafted a set of rules for the impeachment trial of then-Treasurer A. James Manchin– uncle to current U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin– and Trump said they looked at those rules as well, but with only two examples in the state’s 155-year history, Senate staff had to search outside of the state’s boundaries for help.

West Virginia Senator Charles Trump takes questions before Senators voted to approve rules guiding the impeachment trials. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

“We looked at the rules of the U.S. Senate, of course,” Trump said, “but we also looked to other states.”

Trump said rules adopted in Illinois for the trial of Gov. Rob Blagojevich provided some guidance (Blagojevich was impeached for corruption, taking bribes for political appointments), but ultimately the chamber approved rules based on what they thought “would make sense and what was fair.”

According to Madonna’s research, 19 people have been impeached in the federal system, including two presidents. Although there have likely been more at the state level, Madonna said with examples of how to conduct impeachment proceedings few and far between, the actions of West Virginia Senators will be important for years to come.

“How that all gets conducted will be followed in the national press and the press in many other states,” Madonna said, “[therefore], the way in which the trial gets conducted is important, not just in West Virginia, but all over the country.”

That pressure is not lost on Trump.

“Generations from now, what will people say about how we handled this?” he questioned. “Were we thorough? Were we fair? Did we do it correctly?”

Time will tell.

Public Trust in the Judiciary and Its Independence

As the public’s eye turns toward West Virginia, Douglas Keith, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said asurring that the process protects the integrity and independence of the state’s judicial branch should be of utmost importance to those involved.

At the risk of sounding like a high school civics lesson, both the nation’s founders and those of the states that followed in their footsteps have created a system of government with three co-equal branches. The branches have their own separate authorities, but have been designed with systems of checks and balances to keep the others from overreaching their authority.

The impeachment proceedings are an example of how the legislative branch can keep both the executive and judicial branches in line, but Keith said, in West Virginia, Senators risk the erosion of the public’s confidence in that system and in the state’s judicial branch if they do not proceed with extreme caution.

“The Senate just needs to be thinking at every step of the process, ‘what impact will this decision that we make have on the public’s confidence in the courts?’” he said, “because it cannot be that at the end of this process the public thinks that their state Supreme Court has been handpicked or cleared for the benefit of the state Legislature.”

President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, on the second day of his confirmation hearing to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Or the executive. And that struggle has been reflected in national headlines over the past week as U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh began his nomination hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kavanaugh has written that a sitting U.S. President should not face the distractions of civil or criminal proceedings or the interrogations of a prosecutor while in office, seemingly a conflict as Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections– elections that put Kavanaugh’s nominator, Pres. Donald Trump, into office.

Similarly, West Virginia Republicans have been accused by Democrats of expanding the impeachment proceedings beyond that of former Chief Justice Allen Loughry– who faces a criminal trial in federal court next month for lying to the FBI, wire fraud and other charges– for political gain. The judiciary was the only branch of government in the state still controlled by Democrats, although the Republican-led Legislature passed a law to make judicial elections nonpartisan not long after taking hold of the lawmaking branch in 2015.

That perception could leave the state’s citizens with a lack of trust in both its legislative and judicial branches, Keith said, but could also lead to a breakdown of the power that is inherent to the court, a power that is solely drawn from “the public’s confidence that [judges] are playing their proper role.”

“Particularly in highly polarized times, there needs to be a body, a government institution that is dependable as an independent arbiter, that can decide the inevitable political disputes that are going to come before them,” Keith said, “and the public needs to have confidence that they’re doing so without worrying about political pressure.”

The Politicization of Impeachments

It is difficult to see, however, how that political pressure can be avoided when the impeachment proceedings themselves take place in a political body and are decided by jurors whose political affiliations are not just known, but are being touted in advertisements for re-election campaigns.

Even the word “impeachment” is becoming a polarizing term as it continues to appear in national news coverage of the president on an almost daily basis.

“We have a 200-year history of impeachment not being something you undertake lightly and particularly not being something that you undertake for political reasons,” Keith said. “The understanding is that impeachment is for serious ethical or criminal misconduct.”

While Keith does trust that West Virginia lawmakers have considered and will continue to consider real ethical violations in the cases of West Virginia’s Supreme Court justices, the state isn’t the first to experience calls for the impeachment of judges this year.

Suspended West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry, left, stands with his attorney John Carr, right, to address the judge during a pre-trial hearing Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

In February, a group of Pennsylvania lawmakers crafted a memo calling for the impeachment of four of the state’s seven justices. The majority of the court– elected as Democrats– had thrown out the Republican-drawn congressional map, deeming it full of partisan gerrymandering.

The calls for impeachment came to an end as prominent Republicans in Pennsylvania argued to protect the independence of the court and against the punishment of judges for decisions in the courtroom, but the word “impeachment” dominated the headlines for months.

“A lot of folks probably do not have a real sense about what it means,” Madonna said. He followed the situation closely. “For most voters, [the idea of impeachment] is very remote and very removed from their daily lives. It’s complex and it’s not something folks think about.”

That, paired with continual coverage of calls for impeachment at the national level, can lead the public to overlook the severity of the process, according to Keith.

“I do think there is a real risk with the impeachment calls coming out the states at the clip that they are this year that impeachment will be increasingly seen as just another political device,” he said, “and not some very serious endeavor for legislatures to undertake in only the most serious scenarios of criminal and ethical misconduct.

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