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A Vote on the Horizon

Mobile Voting Increased Turnout for This State, But Is It Secure?

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West Virginia made waves in 2018 when it became the first state in the country to allow some residents to vote using a mobile phone app. 

new study released last month by the University of Chicago finds West Virginia’s mobile voting pilot program increased voter turnout by three to five percentage points. 

The research was funded by Tusk Philanthropies, an organization that advocates for mobile voting. The group also paid for West Virginia counties to offer the mobile voting option in the 2018 pilot program.

“What I found is that having mobile voting available as an option increased the number of overseas voters who requested ballots by six to nine percentage points,” said study author Anthony Fowler of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. 

Evaluating West Virginia’s Mobile Voting Pilot

The research compared voter turnout for uniformed overseas absentee voters in 24 counties that offered the mobile voting option with those who did not have that available.

In the 2018 primary, West Virginia offered a mobile voting option for uniformed overseas absentee voters from Harrison and Monongalia counties. For the general election, the option was offered to all 55 counties, but only 24 signed on. According to the Secretary of State’s office, 144 voters from 21 counties ultimately cast a ballot in the 2018 general election using mobile voting. 

“It appeared to increase voter turnout by about three to five percentage points,” Fowler said. “So it looks like mobile voting did, in fact, increase participation for those eligible overseas voters.”

But Fowler also noted in the same study that serious concerns over mobile voting do exist. He surveyed voters to measure their level of confidence in various voting methods. 

According to the study, voters are wary of online voting — including casting a ballot on a mobile device. Of all voting methods, those surveyed said they had the least confidence in online ballots being counted correctly. 

West Virginia’s pilot — which was the first to employ a mobile voting in a federal election — allowed some overseas military voters to use an app called Votaz to cast a ballot. 

Secretary of State Mac Warner has heralded the pilot as a success, but elections and cybersecurity experts say they have concerns over the integrity of any kind of internet-facing election system — especially after Russian meddling in the 2016 election. 

Mobile Voting Security Concerns

Designed by the Boston-based company Voatz, the mobile voting app uses blockchain technology and biometric face scans as security features.

Despite the accessibility and security offered, election security experts have warned of any system that connects to the internet has the potential to be hacked. At the same time, the Secretary of State’s office and other advocates for mobile voting say the option is safer than fax or email — the only other electronic options made available for uniformed overseas absentee voters.

Voatz has come under scrutiny for not allowing computer and elections experts a chance to evaluate the platform like other election systems have been. 

In a paper published in May by the University of South Carolina, technology and elections experts took issue with various aspects of the Voatz platform arguing, in part, that the company hasn’t yet released information from security audits to the public. 

“While much of this secrecy might be understandable for an ordinary business product and service, it should not be acceptable in a public voting system whose details should be transparent to voters, candidates and the public at large,” the paper states.

Tusk Philanthropies: Funding Mobile Voting Rollouts, Research

Fowler’s study was supported by Tusk Philanthropies, an organization that advocates for mobile voting options. The organization has a section of its website dedicated to mobile voting and argues that dismal voter turnout leads to the electorate not being properly represented in various levels of government. 

“[N]early 80% of U.S. adults already carry another way to vote in their pockets: their phone. Blockchain makes mobile voting safer than paper ballots and if we gave people another way to participate in elections without having to find a polling place, wait in line, and deal with all of the hassles of the current system, turnout will increase exponentially,” Tusk’s website states.

The organization, led by businessman and venture capitalist Bradley Tusk, also footed the bill for West Virginia counties who wanted to take part in the 2018 mobile voting pilot. According to Tusk Philanthropies President Sheila Nix, the organization spent $150,000 for West Virginia counties to offer the mobile voting option for the pilot program. 

Despite this relationship and Tusk’s advocacy on the subject, Fowler argues Tusk’s grant to the university did not influence his research.

“If you read the paper, you’ll see that I do not explicitly advocate for mobile voting. I point out some benefits of mobile voting and I also point out some concerns about mobile voting in my paper,” he said. “As a researcher, I’m committed to reporting honestly the results of my analysis — whatever I find.”

Representatives of Tusk also say the research aspect goes hand-in-hand with their mission to boost voter turnout by testing mobile voting.

“On the one hand, we are funding pilots to test the blockchain technology,” Nix said about Tusk’s involvement on the issue. “We’re also doing academic research to see the effect on voter turnout. I don’t find anything problematic about it.”

The Future of Mobile Voting in West Virginia and Elsewhere

As security audits on the Voatz app continue, Warner and his staff have deemed the mobile voting pilot a success. General Counsel Donald Kersey says the pilot served its purpose in making it easier for uniformed overseas absentee voters to cast a ballot.

“Ignoring the research paper itself, we already deemed the pilot a success because we did our audits. We did audits, we had security assessments done on the back end to look at the system itself — not the votes themselves, but the technology and the security on the back end,” Kersey said. “And we have the audits and reports from that. We also have testimony from people that use the system who said, ‘I would not have been able to vote had it not been for this application.’ That’s why we’re offering it.”

Kersey also said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will also conduct an audit on the Voatz app. He said those findings will be released to the public but with redactions of sensitive information related to any vulnerabilities found. 

As it stands now, the only voters able to make use of the option are uniformed overseas absentee voters. The West Virginia Legislature would need to take action in order for mobile voting to be used by a wider population.

Tusk Philanthropies and Voatz say they are moving forward and continuing to run pilot programs in various elections around the United States.

The city of Denver held a municipal election this year and offered its own mobile voting pilot to uniformed overseas absentee voters. Provo, Utah, is also deploying its own pilot for the same population in its own municipal election in 2019. 

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

A Vote on the Horizon

With Rallies, Sit-ins and Arrests, West Virginia Becomes a Flashpoint in the Debate Over Healthcare

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As the debate over proposed legislation on health care heats up, West Virginia has been a flashpoint of opposition to a Republican-lead plan — with protests, rallies and sit-ins. With a high population of low-income residents, the increased grip of the opioid crisis and the fate of 184,100 Medicaid enrollees who would lose coverage under the GOP health care bill in West Virginia, the state serves as a go-to example for explaining what the plan might mean for the rest of America.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score released Monday, 15 million fewer Americans will be insured next year under the bill. That number is expected to reach 22 million by 2026 – about a million fewer than a similar plan proposed by the House of Representatives.

On a tour promoted as an attempt to stop Americans losing health care coverage, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders was the featured speaker at a Sunday afternoon rally in Charleston, the state’s capitol. Members of 13 activist groups — including West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, West Virginians for Affordable Health Care and Planned Parenthood South Atlantic — urged attendees to call their congressional representatives and tell them to vote against legislation that would overhaul the Affordable Care Act.

“If either version passes, the effects will have a crippling impact on communities all throughout our great state,” said Josh Sword of the West Virginia American Federation of Labor.

Sword was referring to versions of the health care overhaul that have recently been drafted by the House and Senate, respectively.

“Hospitals, drug treatment facilities and countless other specialized care providers will have to close their doors due to the loss of federal funding to the system,” Sword said.

Attendees at the Charleston rally directed chants at Republican U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, asking her to vote against the Senate bill. Capito has said that she has “concerns” with the way the legislation is written, but hasn’t yet said how she plans to vote. With four senators currently opposing the bill, Capito’s decision on the matter becomes increasingly pivotal. 

Speakers at the Sunday event covered aspects of health care that would be impacted by the proposed legislation such as Medicaid expansion, substance abuse treatment and the ability of insurance companies to deny coverage to those with preexisting conditions.

Sanders came on stage about an hour into the program to a wildly enthusiastic audience.

“The legislation that is coming before the Senate in a few days, the so-called health care bill, will be the most devastating attack on the working class of this country in the modern history of the United States of America,” Sanders said to rousing applause.

Sanders has been increasingly present in West Virginia, talking health care and other issues affecting working class rural citizens. With multiple visits since winning the state’s Democratic Primary in May 2016 — before losing out on the party’s nomination to Hillary Clinton — Sanders’ presence on Sunday served as a lead-up to even more health care-related news.

On Monday, six West Virginians were arrested after holding a sit-in at Capito’s Charleston office where they urged her to vote against the legislation.

“Senator Capito has refused to attend multiple town hall meetings around the state on healthcare, let alone any other issue. She will not meet publicly with her constituents whose lives will be directly affected – and made worse — by this bill. That’s why I am here today – to ask Senator Capito to hear our stories and to vote against this immoral legislation,” said Joe Solomon, who was among those arrested after spending nearly six hours in Capito’s office.

Monday’s arrests at the sit-in at Capito’s office came as the CBO’s evaluation of the Republican health care bill that originated in the Senate. As the analysis came in, many in Congress used the score to weigh in again on how they plan to vote.

“In early May, the House of Representatives passed a healthcare bill that President Trump said had no heart and now Senate Republicans have proposed a bill that has no soul. Republicans wrote this bill behind closed doors, without input from their constituents, Democrats and even from members of their own party,” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in a news release issued Monday afternoon.

Manchin also criticized the Senate bill’s tax cuts for the wealthy and alluded to the CBO’s analysis that states “few low-income people would purchase any plan.”

“I have said from the beginning that I want to be a partner in making healthcare more affordable and accessible for our state. I stand ready to work with anyone to do that, but this bill makes things worse not better, and I cannot support it,” Manchin said.

The Senate could vote on the proposed legislation as early as this week, before the July 4th recess. Critics argue the timeline on such a vote is too hasty, while supporters hope to push the bill through.

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