WASHINGTON — With their playbook for pushing government boundaries as a guide, some Silicon Valley investors are nudging election officials toward an innovation that prominent coders and cryptographers warn is downright dangerous for democracy.

Voting by phone could be coming soon to an election near you.

As seasoned disruptors of the status quo, tech pioneers have proven persuasive in selling the idea, even as the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine specifically warn against any such experiment.

The fight over mobile voting pits technologists who warn about the risks of entrusting voting to apps and cellphones against others who see internet voting as the only hope for getting most Americans to consistently participate on Election Day.

“There are so many things that could go wrong,” said Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a coalition of computer scientists and government transparency advocates pushing for more-secure elections. “It is an odd time for this to be gaining momentum.”

Behind the vote-by-phone push is a political operative who grew rich helping Uber elbow its way onto city streets and Bird populate the sidewalks with electric scooters, and who sees mobile voting as a potential cure for an ailing democracy.

Bradley Tusk is using the same tactics in this personal crusade that he used to advance tech startups. He has bet a significant share of the fortune he built off his equity stake in Uber that the gospel of mobile voting will spread so fast that most Americans will have the option of casting their ballots for president by phone as soon as 2028.

He has already persuaded the state of West Virginia and the City of Denver to start tinkering with voting by phone, and hopes to move quickly from there.

“What we learned at Uber is once the genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be put it back in,” said Tusk, a venture capitalist who managed former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s reelection campaign before bouncing to Silicon Valley. In the tech world, he invests in startups that face political and regulatory hurdles, then helps knock those hurdles down by galvanizing the public’s appetite for game-changing innovations.

Tusk is certain participation in elections would surge if the technology were widely permitted, even though studies in some of the few places around the world that have tried the method revealed no big turnout boost. Although turnout for the 2018 midterm election was the highest in more than a century, it still brought out only about half of eligible Americans. And while turnout has gone up for presidential contests, it has dropped sharply for many state and local elections around the country.

The entrepreneur frames the fight as one pitting reformers against special interests invested in a low turnout that makes lawmakers unaccountable and easy to corrupt. He talks of the security concerns as if they are a sideshow. Sure, the scholars raising them are earnest, he said, but their approach to the challenge bewilders him. He likens them to people whose only solution to making a swimming pool safer is to fill it with concrete.

He and the executives at Boston-based Voatz, the company he is working with, say the way to make the technology more secure is to improve it through more pilot programs.

“Magic beans,” responds Josh Benaloh, a senior cryptographer at Microsoft, accusing backers who make claims for secure voting technology of peddling something that doesn’t exist. Benaloh sits on the National Academies committee that has warned against the technology.

This is a personal crusade for Tusk. He has refrained, he said, from investing in any of the start-up firms he recruits. His motivation comes from the dismay he developed over what he saw in politics, most notably when he was deputy governor in Illinois under Rod R. Blagojevich, who is serving 14 years in federal prison for corruption. Tusk detailed his disgust in a book he wrote in 2018 titled “The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Startups from Death by Politics.”

“I don’t see a world where the country can survive long term without something that fixes the dysfunction,” Tusk said. “Maybe this is that something.”

He’s meeting with election officials all over the country, offering to pay for pilot mobile voting programs out of his own pocket, as he did in West Virginia and Denver. Tusk is aiming to get 25 such pilots launched over the next few years, spending as much as $50 million. He is optimistic that a couple of states will work with him to allow voting by phone in the 2020 presidential primaries.

So far the pilot programs have been small. West Virginia used the Voatz app to offer mobile voting as an option to military personnel serving abroad in both the primary and general election in 2018. There were 144 votes cast in the state using it. Denver officials offered it as an option to several dozen voters in municipal elections in May. Tusk is confident that states that start dabbling in it will scale up quickly, and make the tech universally available in just a few election cycles.

“The technology can be perfected, but people have to look at this,” said Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff to West Virginia’s secretary of state. At a national gathering of secretaries of state this month in Santa Fe, West Virginia will be urging other states to launch their own pilot programs.

That prospect alarms some of the nation’s most prominent election-security thinkers, who see in Tusk a formidable adversary with an intimidating public relations tool kit. They say he and other promoters for the projects are misleading election officials about how secure the systems are.

“There is wide agreement among computer security experts that this is problematic,” said David Dill, a professor emeritus in computer science at Stanford. “It disturbs me that officials are getting enthusiastic about this voting technology without talking to the people who have the expertise to evaluate its security.”

The National Academies report warns that the risks of this and other forms of internet voting are “more significant than the benefits.”

“Secure Internet voting will likely not be feasible in the near future,” the report said.

The report specifically disputes claims by firms like Voatz that say their system is secure because it sends votes over a blockchain. The technology leverages a network of potentially thousands of independent computers with their own security systems, aiming to diffuse risk. Promoters of such voting say hackers could not alter an election without penetrating thousands of independent security systems.

That argument is in dispute.

“Anybody who is promoting blockchain voting either doesn’t understand blockchains, doesn’t understand voting, or is being dishonest,” said Benaloh, the Microsoft cryptographer. He was speaking at a panel earlier last month at Columbia University that also included West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner.

Cryptographers tick off a list of reasons blockchain technology used for such things as trading Bitcoin won’t work for protecting American election systems, which foreign agents already see as ripe for attack. The cryptographers warn that the app could be breached and stealthily redesigned to rig votes, that malware spread onto voters’ phones could make the system go haywire, that blockchains themselves introduce new security vulnerabilities.

Spreading voting out over the internet, computer experts at America’s most prominent research universities caution, also makes it impossible to create a reliable backup paper trail that election officials can use to audit results.

Blockchains “don’t solve any of the problems,” Benaloh said. “They actually introduce new ones, and make things worse.”

Voatz is refusing to open up its code to unaffiliated programmers and cryptographers like Benaloh and Dill for stress testing of vulnerabilities, citing trade secrets. But its chief executive, Nimit Sawhney, bristles at their critiques, saying they reflect “a misunderstanding of how we use the blockchain.”

The stakes are high. The lead investor behind Voatz is the venture arm of Overstock.com, which states its mission is to “change the world by advancing blockchain technology.”

West Virginia officials say they are taking it slowly. They have no plans right now to expand beyond overseas military personnel, saying those are voters who could otherwise be disenfranchised, and that the state’s audit showed the Voatz technology was effective in enabling them to vote securely.

But Tusk believes the technology will spread quickly.

“Once we prove this is a thing that works and people can do it, I think there will be real demand for it,” he said.

And he has learned well how to inject the pitch into popular discussion.

Recently, the idea of voting by phone emerged as a subplot on the popular Showtime drama “Billions.” The plot twist came after Tusk had dinner with one of the show’s creators. In the show, security concerns scarcely register as a legitimate barrier. The foil is a corrupt Washington politician motivated by anything but the public good.

What did Tusk think of the way the show framed his battle?

“It was great,” he said.

Copyright 2019 Tribune Content Agency.

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(5) comments

exhunter49

The title of the article barely touches the real problem. This concept should scare the rest of us to death. Because the death our great republican form of government, is exactly what will happen.
Vote by PHONE? ? Virtually everyone I know, is already getting scam calls from their OWN phone number. If scammers can do that, what is to stop them from voting in your place??
This is absolutely crazy, and should be illegal. If someone can't take the time and effort to vote in person, and show photo ID to prove they are who they say they are, then they shouldn't be able to vote. There are already ways to allow voting for special need people. This is NOT a good idea.
Vote fraud is already rampant, and has already changed the outcomes of many elections (remember PA where several counties had over 100% turnout and not a single GOP vote was seen?). If we don't stop this, then its Venezuela, here we come.

roy g

Vote fraud is actually NOT rampant as has been repeatedly demonstrated. Even in Texas the AG's office for investigating such cases has found virtually nothing over the years, with literally a handful of cases where actual fraudulent voting by individuals has occurred. Many cases where voting irregularities took place actually favored GOP candidates, as the infamous Virginia 2nd District election rigging last year. As for Pennsylvania, only 11 of the 67 counties ended up voting majority Democratic in 2016. Of those 11, none voted 100% Democrat, with results ranging from 48.52 to 82.53%. What HAS been determined, and agreed on by politicians of both major parties, is that there were attempts in recent years by outsiders to swing the 2016 election in a particular direction. It has only now been reported that foreigners were indeed actually able to hack into election systems in Florida. Even before the 2016 election it had been publicly demonstrated how electronic voting systems could be easily and successfully manipulated. For these reasons, there have been calls to develop paper trails to verify the accuracy for votes. Attempting to create methods whereby "voting by phone" can occur is the exact opposite of this, and opens up disastrous possibilities that could destroy the election process as we know it. Any ambitious individual with sufficient resources could tilt a state or the country towards one-party rule, and such absolute power corrupts absolutely, regardless of who wields it. http://www.hackingdemocracy.com/ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t75xvZ3osFg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVmsaDS_FwY

jlfliberty

[censored] Really? Anyone with any sense knows that this is a very bad idea. Probably being proposed by those intellectually challenged that don't want voter I.D.

bbfan22

Probably the worst idea to come around in my lifetime. With computer hackers already a very big problem (wikileaks, Snowden, etc.), our very existence as a Republic would certainly be in jeopardy. I notice that Tusk was in the administration of a liberal Democrat who was convicted of political corruption, pay-to-play political appointees, etc. Why should we trust this guy to determine how to cast out votes??? Insane!!

roy g

"I notice that Tusk was in the administration of a liberal Democrat who was convicted of political corruption" This is what is generally called "misleading information", another example of dishonesty exemplifying why such an apparently vulnerable system such as vote-by-phone is a bad idea. The rest of the story ... Bradley Tusk was appointed as Deputy Governor in the Illinois administration of the notorious Rod Blagojevich back in 2003 and served in that position during the governor's first term in office (through 2006). While Blagojevich may been corrupt, this was nothing unusual in Illinois politics. The administration of his predecessor, Republican George Ryan, was also mired in ethics scandals. Tusk was noteworthy for staying above the fray, going so far as to refuse to cooperate with executing Blagojevich's pay-for-play schemes. An example was Blagojevich's withholding of a $2 million grant to a school in then Rep. Rahm Emmanuel's district until Emmanuel's brother threw fundraiser was for him. Tusk refused to cooperate, knowing the scheme was "both illegal and unethical", and testified accordingly as a witness against Blagojevich in court. Besides being a venture capitalist notable for the creation of Uber, his tenure in the governor's office was marked by efforts to "make Illinois the first state to guarantee health care for all children, the first state to offer pre-school to all 3 and 4 year olds, the first state to import prescription drugs from Europe and Canada, and the first state to convert its entire tollway system to Open Road Tolling. Under Tusk's leadership, Illinois reduced the state workforce by 20% and materially increased funding for education and health care without raising taxes." https://www.pantagraph.com/news/deputy-governor-leaving-town/article_1baa8b2b-7d5c-517e-a8af-5d97ca368e06.html Reducing the state workforce by 20%? Wow, sounds like he had something in common with conservatives there, except instead of handing the savings to big business cronies, the savings were used to make lives better for the people of Illinois. But yes, vote-by-phone seems a horrible idea. I guess not every idea backed by someone with an otherwise notable business and political career will be a winner.

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