Utah County pilot project will let LDS missionaries and overseas military vote using their phones

(Voatz app screenshots) Eligible Utah County voters living abroad will be able to use the Voatz app to cast their ballots in the upcoming election.

Religious missionaries and active-duty military personnel will get to vote using their smartphones — some already have — as part of a pilot project during this year’s election for municipal offices in Utah County.

Around 58 voters will be able take advantage of the program in the primary, estimates Utah County Clerk Amelia Powers. It’s an innovation she and other leaders hope will make it easier for overseas voters and for the state’s second-largest county to process their ballots.

“It’s not a ton [of people] but it is enough that it helps with efficiency and manpower,” Powers said. “Even one voter overseas deserves to be able to cast their ballot anonymously and safely.”

Members of the military and others living abroad have traditionally had to rely on absentee paper ballots. Now, eligible voters will be able to opt in to vote electronically when filling out their absentee ballot request and can cast their ballots through the Voatz app after completing their identity authentication.

“The benefit for this population in particular is otherwise their options to vote are either by postal mail, fax, or email and if you’re stationed somewhere in the middle of nowhere overseas, it’s very hard to rely on a paper ballot,” Hilary Braseth, the director of product at Voatz, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday.

The app uses blockchain technology to keep information safe and anonymized, she said, in conjunction with advanced mobile technology and biometric information that verifies a voter’s identity.

But amid national concerns about election hacking, some experts have expressed concerns about the technology’s vulnerabilities.

The primary worry for Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a national nongovernmental organization that advocates for more secure elections, is that Voatz hasn’t proved it could actually identify a threat, and that it would therefore be difficult to determine whether a voter’s information had been intercepted on its way to the blockchain.

“We always advocate that there be a way to detect if something has gone wrong and then to recover from it,” she said. “This doesn’t have that — regardless of all the measures they’re putting in place to prevent something from happening.”

Voatz says it has conducted 40 successful pilots that include federal, state and local elections, with more than 15,000 votes cast in its largest election.

Twenty-four counties in West Virginia used mobile voting in 2018. Next came Denver County, which used it in its May municipal elections and June runoff. Utah County now becomes the third jurisdiction to partner with Tusk Philanthropies and the National Cybersecurity Center to bring voters mobile voting.

Eligible races are in Eagle Mountain, Highland, Lehi, Mapleton, Orem, Pleasant Grove, Santaquin and Springville, as well as City Council Seats 3 and 4 in Provo. Costs for the pilot project will be covered by Tusk Philanthropy.

The county, which has faced a number of election-related problems in the past and last year was dubbed the “epicenter of dysfunction” by Gov. Gary Herbert, is also piloting a separate voting method this year known as ranked-choice voting.

Vineyard and Payson will lead the experiment with that new model, which will offer voters a full slate of candidates in the general election and allow them to rank their favorites, rather than choosing from the survivors of a primary contest.

Powers, who was elected to her post last year, said the push to innovate on elections is deliberate, noting that the county had previously “really lagged behind the rest of the state when it comes to technology and innovation.”

“But we feel very strongly that being the home of Silicon Slopes, being the home of innovation in the state of Utah, that we, as a county government, should not be lagging behind our peers in other counties,” she said. "We want to make sure we’re taking advantage of the technology available to us in a safe and innovative way.”

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state’s top election official, expressed support for the pilot project.

Braseth said Voatz is focused on successfully implementing its product for those who are overseas but is also looking to the future, including at opening its products for people with disabilities, who may struggle to get to the polls.

And as the world becomes increasingly digital, Braseth said she wouldn’t be surprised if mobile voting or something like it becomes more commonplace.

There’s an “appetite for convenience among people in the country,” she said, especially among millennials. “So whether it happens with Voatz, whether it happens with other entities, I think in 10 years, we will see a different picture somewhat of who and how people are voting and what methods they’re using."