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West Virginia lawmakers question mobile absentee voting option

CHARLESTON — A mobile phone app used by deployed military service members to vote overseas could be the answer for helping people with disabilities and the blind to vote absentee, though concerns were raised Monday about potential hacking.

Senate Bill 94 was introduced Jan. 8 by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, at the request of Secretary of State Mac Warner. The bill would provide West Virginians with physical disabilities the ability to vote by an electronic absentee ballot.

The bill easily made it through the state Senate eight days later, passing unanimously Jan. 15 as the first bill to cross over from the Senate to the House of Delegates. The House Judiciary Committee took up the bill Monday morning and was still talking about the bill Monday afternoon. The bill was recommended for passage and will be sent to the full House.

While SB 94 leaves it up to the local county clerks to determine what electronic absentee voting system to use, the Secretary of State’s Office already has a free electronic solution at its disposal for counties to use. In 2018, West Virginia became the first state to use a mobile voting app for deployed members of the U.S. military and their families.

“What the county offers to that voter to mark their ballots would be up to the county, but counties don’t have other technology available,” said Donald “Deke” Kersey, general counsel for the Secretary of State’s Office. “The only technology available I’m aware of is what we’re providing that we can provide, and the Maryland Board of Elections developed a software which is free to other states if they want to use it.”

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act allows eligible voters to register overseas and request an absentee ballot. The iPhone and Android app, developed by Voatz and funded by Tusk Philanthropies, uses biometric data to confirm the voter’s identity, allows them to vote by smartphone, and uploads the ballot into an encrypted blockchain system.

On Election Day, a county clerk is able to access the ballot, print it, and tabulate it like any other ballot.

There were 24 participating counties in the mobile voting app for the 2018 election. Of the 147 overseas voters who completed all the steps to be able to vote using the app, 144 — or 98 percent — submitted their ballot, according to Voatz.

According to a study by a scholar at the University of Chicago and funded by Tusk Philanthropies, the mobile voting app increased overseas voter turnout — traditionally a low number — by nearly 5 percent. Since then, local governments in Colorado and Utah have used mobile voting systems.

Kersey said they were trying to get the bill through quickly to avoid a costly lawsuit that could be filed by Disability Rights of West Virginia. A similar lawsuit in Maryland helped bring about that state’s electronic absentee voting options for people with disabilities.

“West Virginia’s law is nearly verbatim the same as Maryland’s law that was stricken down for being unconstitutional under the (Americans with Disabilities Act),” Kersey said.

Cybersecurity experts have raised a number of issues with the safety of ballots cast by mobile apps and the blockchain security behind the encryption. Those concerns were confirmed when Mike Stuart, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, revealed in October that an attempt was made to hack into the mobile voting system during the 2018 election.

Stuart would not say his investigation was criminal in nature, only that the FBI was looking into the attempted hack. No information has been released since.

Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, raised concerns about using the Voatz system if an investigation was still ongoing.

“We’ve had testimony today that the investigation is ongoing,” Fluharty said. “We have news reports as late as October of 2019 with statements from Mike Stuart saying that the investigation was ongoing. I really don’t feel comfortable moving forward with a bill until we have somebody here from Stuart’s office to give us any assurances that the investigation will reveal that there was no improprieties and that no hack was successful and that the software will live up to its wording.”

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