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W.Va. Plan Would Allow Some Service Members To Vote Via Smartphone


When it comes to making voting more secure, cybersecurity experts say the U.S. should move away from electronic voting machines back towards paper ballots. West Virginia's headed in the other direction. That state is experimenting with allowing service members deployed overseas to vote using an app on their smartphone. But as West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Dave Mistich reports, there are some big security concerns about that app.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: Here's the challenge for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner - federal law says military and overseas voters have the right to cast an absentee ballot. But...

MAC WARNER: The real issue here is the difficulty it takes to get that absentee ballot to a deployed soldier on a hillside in Afghanistan or to a sailor under a polar ice cap. The U.S. mail simply doesn't reach those places. And so they do have access to the Internet.

MISTICH: Many states allow military and overseas voters to fill out a ballot and email or fax it in. But for a number of reasons, the participation rate among military voters is low says Don Inbody. He's a retired Navy captain who's written a book about military absentee voting. He says not every ballot cast gets counted.

DON INBODY: The No. 1 reason a returned absentee ballot from any source - but especially from overseas - is rejected is it got there too late, which is a problem. It took too long for the ballot to get back. The second most common reason that an absentee ballot is rejected is because of a signature problem.

MISTICH: So the state is working with a Boston-based company called Voatz that's developed what it says is a secure way to cast a vote on a phone.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Simply create an account using your phone number and email. Then take a picture of your photo ID and yourself, provide a fingerprint or retinal scan to confirm your identity and eligibility to vote. Now, you're ready to begin. Voatz is the convenience of voting anywhere in 60 seconds or less.

MISTICH: Warner says the app could draw in some military voters.

WARNER: Our first-time voters - these are the 18, 19, 20-year-olds, and this is their first experience of voting. They've done so much else by cellphone or mobile devices - they wonder why they can't vote with a mobile device. But the mobile device simply was a solution to this problem.

MISTICH: Two West Virginia counties piloted the app during last May's primaries, and a small number of voters used it. But Dan Wallach is concerned this system could be a step backwards in terms of security. He's a professor of computer science at Rice University.

DAN WALLACH: You have to engineer your system such that only legitimate voters can create votes. You have to engineer your systems so voters' votes are private. That way they can't be coerced or bribed into voting against their interests. You have to worry about denial of service where some voters aren't able to get in but others are.

MISTICH: He's skeptical of any voting system that uses the Internet, which includes West Virginia's new mobile voting option.

WALLACH: Claims are being made about it that are not substantiated in any way. So it's really a snake oil voting system. They're claiming that it does incredible things, and those claims are difficult to believe.

MISTICH: Despite warnings from election security experts, Warner is expanding the mobile voting app for absentee military personnel. His office says they have 24 of the state's 55 counties on board for the November election.

For NPR News, I'm Dave Mistich in Morgantown, W. Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Mistich
Originally from Washington, W.Va., Dave Mistich joined NPR part-time as an associate producer for the Newcast unit in September 2019 — after nearly a decade of filing stories for the network as a Member station reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In July 2021, he also joined the Newsdesk as a part-time reporter.
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