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News

Voting App Blues

Concerns about election technology are making Utah reevaluate app usage.

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DEREK CARLISLE
  • Derek Carlisle

Botched headcounts. Incorrect calculations. Staffing problems. Reported delays. Iowa's caucus night woes seemed to serve as a cautionary tale for the upcoming general election.

The Hawkeye State traditionally kicks off the primary season and often gives candidates momentum that propels them into the public eye. However, the caucus system can be notoriously tricky—and this isn't the first time Iowa has botched results. Previous discrepancies also delayed the democratic winner, Hillary Clinton, from being announced in the 2016 caucuses. But the errors this month seemed systemic, profound and deeply worrying for a country that is already edgy about election security.

As this year's Iowa caucus turned into an unmitigated disaster, many fingers pointed in one direction—toward an app designed by a company called Shadow. Area precinct chairs failed to download the app ahead of time, and even those that did found it crashed and threw out coding errors on election night. The fallout from Iowa's chaotic caucus has spawned anxiety among voters, prompting states like Nevada to scrap plans to use the same app and seek out other developers.

As details unfold about exactly what went wrong in Iowa, election security experts are using the debacle to highlight their concerns about technology and election integrity. After the 2016 election, worries about election security ratcheted up as evidence mounted that some state voting systems had been breached. Ensuring that voters feel confident they could cast their votes in a safe, fair, democratic process was a priority in the 2020 Democratic primary process. Iowa's failure to deliver seems to confirm the fears of many—and the conspiracy theories flew thick and fast online.

Voter worries about technology and election integrity seem to have caught the ears of Utah's Legislature. On Tuesday, Feb. 18, the House voted to pass House Bill 292, requiring a study on the benefits and risks of online voting. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, now proceeds to the Senate. And while it only specifies that Utah should dig a little further into the security risks of technology used to cast and report votes, it might make state officials think twice about relying on internet voting.

"I'm not advocating one way or another in regards to online voting," McKell tells City Weekly. "The bill specifies that we should commission a study and review the results by 2021. I think we should hold off on implementing any broad initiatives with voting apps until we've taken a deeper look."

Concerns about the state of election security and technology in Utah have also been raised after a recent study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their findings indicate an app piloted in previous Utah elections, Voatz, contains serious and significant flaws that could allow votes to be changed. The study concluded that the use of the app should be sidelined until cybersecurity concerns are resolved.

"Given the severity of failings ... the lack of transparency, the risks to voter privacy and the trivial nature of the attacks, we suggest that any near-future plans to use this app for high-stakes elections be abandoned," the study says.

Voatz, a Boston startup, tried to quell criticism this month by reiterating that pilots have been conducted safely in multiple states and that their app was not the same one deployed in Iowa. J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, took to Twitter late last week to echo the findings of the MIT research and caution states against using the app. "In my view, based on MIT's findings, no responsible jurisdiction should use Voatz in real elections any time soon," Halderman noted. "It will take major advances in security technology before internet voting is safe enough."

While many cybersecurity experts blame issues with Voatz as a lack of transparency and voter privacy associated with blockchain technology, the concerns with voting apps don't end there. Biometric identification methods used to identify voters at a distance typically involve fingerprinting and facial recognition. Facial recognition technology still struggles to identify minorities, something that should throw red flags for any technology that relies on it for voter identification.

Many voters are unaware that Voatz has actually been piloted in previous elections in Utah County. Its use has been confined to a small number of service members and their spouses stationed abroad, and, more recently, to allow disabled Utah county residents to vote from home.

When questioned about the security of Voatz, Utah County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner told The Salt Lake Tribune they'd been briefed about the concerns but have no intention of scrapping the app and feel confident about deploying it again in the upcoming primary election. There are also plans to use Voter Clicks in the Republican primary caucus, something that was first piloted in 2018.

McKell confirmed he's also personally used Voter Clicks and struggled with technology hiccups. "I've never not had a problem," he says.

What does all this mean for Utah voters as Super Tuesday approaches on March 3? In short, not much. Salt Lake County Democratic Chair Emily Hase assures residents that voting for the county's Democratic primary will occur via mail ballots and in-person voting just as it has in previous elections. While the party doesn't have much control over how voting takes place, they work closely with county clerks to ensure they feel confident about methods being used.

"As far as I know, there are no current plans to use technology like an app for [county] voting," Hase tells City Weekly. "The Salt Lake County Democratic Party will continue using paper methods for voting and tracking election results at our precinct caucus elections and our county convention." She confirms that while some data solutions are being deployed for internal use, the reporting of election results remains unchanged. "We're incorporating some technology solutions to help us better manage our data," she says. "But the reporting of election results will remain a purely on-paper process."

Utah election officials and the Legislature will undoubtedly continue to seek out solutions that allow them to balance more accessible voting while maintaining election integrity. But most election security experts agree the technology isn't ready for prime time yet. So, mail in your ballot on time or drop it off at a designated polling place. Hop on down to your local precinct and cast your vote as you normally would. Whatever method you choose, Utah officials assure voters that despite online conspiracy theories, they can feel confident their votes will be counted.

"One of the questions I'll be interested to see answered as a result of studying online voting is whether the apps can really provide the kind of user experience needed to make online voting a reality," McKell concludes. "Lots of apps we use on a daily basis have a lot of users providing data to refine the app. Voting apps would be something we'd use much less frequently. And there may be other methods, like mail-in ballots, that could be just as successful in helping with voter turnout and accessibility issues."

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