While Virginians turned out in record numbers for the midterm election last year, more can be done to help the most disenfranchised voting demographic in the country: overseas citizens, military personnel and their family members stationed overseas.
Delegates Larry Rush (R) and R. Steven Landes (R), and Sens. Bill DeSteph (R) and Mason Montgomery (D), should be commended for recently introducing bipartisan legislation in the General Assembly that would create pilot programs or have the State Board of Elections study how electronic forms of voting can help Virginia’s deployed military members, overseas citizens and their families more easily exercise their right to vote.
Virginia has the third highest number of active duty U.S. military personnel of any state — many of whom serve overseas. Nationally, more than 3 million voters live overseas, and according to a 2018 study by the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) 93% of them were unable to vote in 2016 because their current voting options (postal mail, fax or email) were either unreliable, inaccessible or insecure. These infrastructural barriers are unacceptable, particularly for those who are serving our country.
Combined with ongoing election threats from foreign actors, shifting demographics, and advances in technology, the need to improve Virginia’s election infrastructure has never been greater. In an era when Americans share financial, medical, and other highly sensitive information electronically, these same advances in mobile technology, paired with biometrics and a blockchain-based infrastructure, create a powerful solution.
Last year, the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office successfully launched a pilot program that enabled overseas citizens to cast their ballot via a mobile application from anywhere in the world — a first in US election history.
Smartphone technology has the greatest potential to revolutionize the way we vote, from leveraging biometrics to the vast security infrastructure developed in support of its widespread distribution. Indeed, according to Pew Research, smartphone ownership lands at 94% among people aged 18-29, 89% for those aged 30-49, and 73% for those aged 50-64 in the United States. Virginia needs to leverage these latest developments in smartphone hardware, along with encryption and blockchain technology, in order to both secure a voter’s identity, as well as the vote.
By no means should we switch to a smartphone-only elections system, nor one without a paper option. There should always be optionality around voting methods, as long as those options are tested and enable a post-election audit with a voter-verified paper trail. Indeed, the legislation introduced advocates for pilots with overseas citizens that not only leverage these technologies, but also enable post-election audits at multiple levels throughout the process.
When new technology is moved into a new space, questions understandably arise, and these concerns should be welcomed and thoroughly discussed. Some critics argue that leveraging technology for elections is not secure. No solution — paper included — is 100% tamper-proof, however, every ballot submitted in the West Virginia pilot was encrypted and stored on a geographically distributed, redundant network of blockchain servers managed by the two largest providers of cloud infrastructure.
At the close of the polls, a paper ballot was printed for every mobile vote and tabulated using federally-certified equipment. Additionally, voters received a digital receipt to confirm that their vote was correctly tabulated, a benefit that voters do not receive under the current paper-based system.
Other concerns include voter fraud. Today, friends or family members can easily impersonate a registered voter in their household and submit their absentee ballot — though seemingly harmless, this practice is illegal. With mobile voting, voters take a picture of a valid government-issued ID and use the smartphone’s camera to take a “live selfie”, leveraging its biometric capabilities (fingerprint or facial recognition) to authenticate the voter, and reducing the likelihood of voter impersonation.
Virginia has an opportunity to lead the nation by building an elections infrastructure that is secure, increases voter turnout and civic engagement. If you have a family member who has been unable to vote because they lived overseas or were turned away at the polls, please call your local General Assembly members and encourage them to support HB2588, HJ670, and SJ291.