With the U.S. election process shown to be vulnerable to hacking during the 2016 presidential race, West Virginia could be leading the way to prevent a repeat in the 2018 midterms.

In May, the Mountain State became the first to allow voting by blockchain when it allowed overseas servicemen, servicewomen and their spouses from two of the state’s counties to cast ballots in the state’s primary using the Voatz app. Officials are now saying the program likely will be expanded to the entire state for the November general election.

One goal of the test was to allow voting for military members stationed in places where it’s difficult to receive a paper ballot in the mail and mail it back in time to be counted. But the pilot program, which is said to be the first federal election-level blockchain vote, was also a useful test of whether blockchainenabled voting is more secure.

Using blockchain to allow service members to vote isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s the law.

“It gives us the ability to have a public, transparent ledger where all the votes can be recorded in an immutable and secure way and can’t be tampered with,” says Nimit Sawhney, co-founder of Voatz, which had already been used for convention, university, union and local-level elections. “The current voter system doesn’t do that.”

He tells ThirtyK that blockchain also “allows us to create infrastructure. It’s very hard to destroy the blockchain. You have to kill all the nodes and kill all the infrastructure it has.”

Sawhney likens the app to a paper ballot, but instead of having an oval to punch out for each candidate (Remember the 2000 election’s “hanging chad?”), the app has an address on the blockchain as a “recipient,” and each voter has a “marble.” Voatz uses that term  instead of “token” so users won’t think the system is related to cryptocurrencies.

“When you mark an oval on the phone, in the background a transaction happens and [moves] that marble from your account to the recipient’s account,” he says. The phone makes the transaction anonymous. The pilot used printed paper ballots as a backup.

The desire to make voting easier for service members and their families overseas came directly from West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, Michael L. Queen, deputy chief of staff and director of communications for the Secretary of State’s Office, tells ThirtyK. Warner served in the U.S. Army for 23 years, in places including Afghanistan, Korea and Saudi Arabia, “so he experienced firsthand how difficult it was to want to vote back home and not be able to vote,” Queen says. In 2016, 300,000 ballots that were requested by absentee voters from across the country weren’t returned, he adds.

This isn’t just a nice thing to do for servicemen and women, it’s the law. The Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act requires election officials to ensure that members of the military receive the “utmost consideration and cooperation when voting.”

Queen says there can be a “little bit of extra work because some of these men and women are stationed in tents in Afghanistan or in submarines in the Indian Ocean where mail service isn’t very good.”

West Virginia made the Voatz app available to overseas military voters from two of the states 55 counties. Only 20 voters were involved. Queen anticipates the state will announce soon that this option will be expanded for overseas military voters and their spouses from all 55 West Virginia counties for the November election.

A major takeaway from the pilot, says Sawhney, was the “learning curve for the first time, especially for voters downloading the application and going through the verification process of scanning IDs and doing facial recognition.

Jen A. Miller
Jen Miller's writing has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, CIO and Buzzfeed.