While voting plays an absolutely critical role in our country and other democracies around the world, the technology behind it can oftentimes seem antiquated. In many jurisdictions, it involves circling names on a piece of paper, submitting that ballot into a plastic box, and waiting hours – if not days – for authorities to tally the votes.
The founders of Voatz have a better way. By leveraging blockchain, biometrics and mobile technologies, they’ve created a secure method for citizens to cast their ballots on their cell phones, without worrying about lost votes or – worse – hacks and other forms of interference. Startup Boston caught up with Voatz Co-founder and CEO Nimit Sawhney to discuss why his technology works, how they came up with the idea, and where they’re headed next.
SB: Can you tell me a little bit about how you found Voatz – how did you identify the opportunity, and get the company going?
NS: My brother and I were at a Hack to the Future hackathon at SXSW in Austin a few years ago, where we ended up participating on a whim and building the prototype of a completely audacious sounding election system from scratch. And to our surprise, we won first prize.
We returned to Boston and gave it a little thought, and used the prize money to start the company.
At the time, we had no real real experience in the election space. My background is in cyber security and mobile software, and my brother's is in enterprise SaaS software. But we felt like, given our backgrounds and life experiences, we could bring a fresh touch. So we jumped right in.
SB: Why the focus on building a voting system on a blockchain?
NS: Back before the hype around crypto, we read the original Bitcoin paper, and it was fascinating. The money side of it never really appealed to us, but using it as a data security, tamper resistance mechanism seemed like a very cool use case. And we felt like elections would be a good place to try it out.
We’re from India, and as boys we would see and hear things which hopefully don't happen anymore, about coercion and people being forced to vote a certain way.
This would be giving people the privacy to vote on a phone in a safe, secure and easy fashion. So that thinking, and the fact that we won the competition, gave rise to the company. In some ways, it was all coincidental.
SB: Did you build your own blockchain or did you build this on top of an existing network?
NS: We originally intended to build it on Bitcoin or Ethereum, but after talking to election officials, it became very clear that they were pretty worried about those networks – so perception-wise, it was better to build on Hyperledger.
And we received good advice early on. They wanted us to come up with an architecture where, if there's an election happening in a certain state or in the US, you can say the nodes are all within the geographical bounds of the U.S. So if an election occurs in the U.S., the data does not leave the U.S. nodes. So we felt like Hyperledger was the way to go, and IBM had just open sourced it.
SB: How long did it take to build this, and how did you get buy-in from election officials to participate in voting?
NS: It took a few years. We really started researching and learning in 2015, and we didn't really have a functional product at that time. And by 2016 we had something we could start testing around. We found a couple of early clients, including the Massachusetts Democratic Party. They were having a convention in the summer of 2016 and they needed help, which became a quick first test.
Then we knew this has potential, so we ended up formally creating the company at the end of 2016, and we also got selected for the Techstars Boston and Masschallenge Boston accelerator programs in 2017. So we kept building and did smaller elections, including university voting where they didn't really need our security, because we wanted a way to test it out. We did a couple of union elections as well, and again with the local political parties on both sides.
And by the end of 2017 we had something like a proper version one, and it was ready for prime time. In 2018 we got our first government client, a government election for two counties in West Virginia. It was in the midterm election – a big deal, and the first time a smartphone app, blockchain based system was used in an official U.S. election.
Since then, we kept on expanding, and have completed 125 elections so far. We've done elections in nine U.S. states now, and then in Canada last year we were selected by 15 cities in Ontario for their municipal elections. Every citizen is eligible to use our system over there, whereas in the U.S., it's only military voters, citizens who are living overseas, and voters with disabilities who are currently allowed to use the system.
In Canada the law is a little bit more advanced. So in the municipal elections, every voter was eligible to use this system in the jurisdictions that selected us. We also did our first election in Europe earlier this year, in the country of Georgia. And recently, we just won our first project in Africa – in Congo.
We’re making progress, with more and more people using it in bigger, more complex elections. But we're still a pretty small team. We don't have any marketing engine, so it's mostly word of mouth. People who've used our systems successfully recommend us.
We still feel pretty alone in terms of pioneering this space because there's really no one else who does what we do. There are other companies who do what we call traditional online voting where you can go to a browser and vote. But they don’t provide the highest level of security you need to take this mass market.
You have to secure the ballot before it gets written, and you have to secure it after it gets written. Blockchain offers a big part of the solution, because it is very simply a highly tamper resistant database. Once you write something, it's hard – if not impossible – to change it. So blockchain helps with the second part. For the first part of the voting process, the blockchain does not add much value at the moment. So that is something which we built; you can solve it by adding the kind of hardware security that's available on modern phones, including biometrics. And phones offer a containerized environment unlike a typical desktop or laptop computer.
SB: Now that you have momentum, what are your plans for the future? You mentioned getting wider adoption of the technology. Do you have any aspirations that it could be part of a national election?
NS: Voatz was used in the 2018 midterms, the 2020 presidential elections and the 2022 midterms, in a few states. Our focus at present is to expand into more states in the U.S. for the upcoming 2024 elections, and eventually expand to a wider group of voters beyond the military, voters with disabilities, and citizens living overseas. And then internationally, things are moving a lot faster, with governments adapting regulations and preparing to bring in new technology for a host of e-governance services including i-voting.
About the author: Randall Woods is a former editor at Bloomberg News and currently is a Senior Vice President at SBS Comms, a communications agency for technology companies and startups.