The New (Inter)Faces of American Politics: Start-ups Changing the Way We Vote This Election

Following the onset of America’s quarantine in March of 2020, it seems most activities found a unique way to shift to a virtual format. Whether it be school, work, or fitness classes, life continued to move forward with the help of technology despite the dangers of the pandemic. As our world has shifted focus to minimizing human interactions and prioritizing our health, many have pondered the safest way to vote this November. It’s no doubt that the results of the widely-publicized presidential and local elections will have rippling effects on the future of the United States of America, just like in any election year. However, as this year has been incredibly different from others, is it finally time to change the way citizens vote? 

Most Americans are familiar with two types of voting: voting in person and postal voting. Postal voting, also known as mail-in voting, has been around since the American Civil War and allows an individual to complete an absentee ballot and return it by postal-mail. While this concept is a simple idea to most Americans, it has come under intense scrutiny lately, as many citizens do not feel it is safe to vote in person. Especially following the announcement of major cuts to the Postal Service, many citizens worry that something may interfere with the logistics of voting in this election. Just like any other issues citizens face, startups have tried to solve this problem through technology.

On February 3rd, 2020, the Iowa Caucus was set to receive votes through the smartphone app Shadow Inc., yet ran into technical difficulties in verifying citizens’ votes for the Democratic front runner. Ultimately, the Iowa Democratic Party failed to provide a total count of votes by the end of the day. It issued a statement on the morning of February 4th saying that data from the votes had been collected and recorded properly, yet “it was reporting out only partial data. The issue was identified and fixed. The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately.” Many took to social media and news outlets, expressing their valid concerns that the election had been hacked and individuals should be hesitant to embrace such technology for civic engagement. 

In instances in which technology fails in democratic processes like this past Spring, it is important to treat the event as experimental in nature and not as a blanket rule on the role such innovations play in elections. The app was the first time such a system was used in Iowa, and it was simply not prepared to report the votes, a major mistake that luckily did not interfere too drastically with the democratic process, as the votes were validated through a paper trail. While the app’s failure to initially report the results made major news, few stories acknowledged that ultimately, the results were not affected. 

Shadow Inc. is not the only company aiming to change the election. Before the Iowa Democratic Caucus, there had been previous successes in digitizing voting, and a number of startups are not giving up on improving the election with technology. The startup world has a reputation for major innovation at whatever the cost, with the iconic phrase “move fast, break things” tattooed on its forehead. However, when it comes to what has been called “the most important election in American history,” nobody wants to see our principles of democracy and civic engagement get broken, whether that be through another country’s interference or through an internal technical issue. Election security is a necessary and important threat to address when it comes to modernizing the methods of voting within our country, and several companies are using this past Spring as a lesson as they take more careful steps to improve technology’s relationship with politics. 

One such company is Democracy Live, the largest provider of cloud and tablet-based voting technologies in the United States. Founded in 2007, the company has partnered with Amazon and Microsoft to provide voting technology for the 200 million eligible voters in the United States. Democracy Live technologies have been deployed in over 1000 elections and have served over 600 jurisdictions. In 2020, Democracy Live made headlines when King County in Seattle decided to work with the company for a pilot mobile-only election. The pilot program is the largest mobile voting effort in the country, allowing more than a million registered voters in the Seattle area to cast a ballot from any location with cell phone service.

The fiasco in Iowa left many wondering how to secure important electoral information, a problem that Democracy Live addresses through OmniBallot, its electronic method for delivering and returning ballots. OmniBallot operates via a secure online portal hosted by the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud, which encrypts all ballot data. It has also received FedRamp certification, which allows the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, and the Department of Defense to access this system. In 2019, Democracy Live received the international green-light from the United Nations when it was bestowed with the intergovernmental organization’s Accessibility in Voting Award. OmniBallot shows that it is possible for mobile voting to be secure, trustworthy, and accessible.

However, Democracy Live is not the only option for digital methods of voting. Started in 2015 by brothers Nimit and Simer Sawhney, Voatz is another mobile voting platform that allows users to securely and easily cast their ballots through a smartphone. For jurisdictions that support mobile voting, individuals submit a request to receive their ballot via smartphone and download the Voatz app on their device. In the 2018 midterm elections, Voatz was made available to active duty military members and overseas voters from across 24 different counties throughout West Virginia. Since then, mobile voting has also expanded to the City of Denver, Colorado and Utah County, Utah. “Being able to demonstrate successful use cases and move step-by-step is how you build trust,” said Hilary Braseth, Chief of Staff of Voatz. “Only time will tell.”

Moving processes to mobile phones is a typical move amongst startups, but startups focused on providing the infrastructure for an election need top-notch security. With Voatz, users complete a three-step identification system that pairs a photo of a government issued ID, a fingerprint, and a selfie. Following this verification, all personal identifying information is then deleted, and all other data is anonymized through blockchain. Voters then receive their mobile ballot. Once they make their choices, the biometrics and ID are used again to verify the individual’s identity before submitting the ballot. The user and their voting jurisdiction then receive an anonymized receipt to verify their choices. In case a mishap occurs, like in Iowa this past Spring, this allows results to be verified.

While Democracy Live and Voatz are private companies, there are also public efforts to improve digital methods of voting. Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP) is a novel method of voting through touch screen iPads that are linked to a paper record for every vote. The initiative was started by Los Angeles County and a London-based tech company, Smartmatic. Earlier this Spring, the program allowed 745,737 LA County voters to cast their ballot on 22,000 ballot marking devices throughout the expanded voting period, including 600,000 of those votes on Election Day. While some may fear that using this system might be challenging for less tech-savvy voters, VSAP’s technology has received great reviews. In an exit poll conducted by Loyola Marymount University, 95.4% of voters said using the ballot marking device was “very easy” or “somewhat easy.” In September of 2020, the system was recertified for use in the upcoming November Presidential election. Smartmatic has verified that the technology infrastructure is air-gapped: isolated, self-contained, and never connected to the Internet to avoid the widely-feared interference. 

The incident with Shadow Inc. and the Iowa Caucus this past Spring provided a glimpse of the chaos that can accompany digital methods of voting, but it should not serve as a warning against combining technology and civic engagement in the future. Whether it be through partnerships with government bodies, paper trails, blockchain technology, or biometrics, the startups focused on improving voting have security and reliability on their radar this November. These startups will face the same challenge as any other company — earning the trust of consumers by showcasing their potential. Through small successes and recurring improvements over election cycles, these startups will continue to grow like any small business exploring a new venture. Yet while most companies can dive right in to changing their respective industries, having a national election as the setting of their success requires these startups to do two things: 1. look before they leap, and 2. get out the vote.    

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