Voting online? This startup is making that dream a reality

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In the age of breakneck technological innovation, one aspect of government the digital revolution has yet to touch: voting.

It’s surprising we still use volunteer poll workers, outdated machines and manual name validation at the thousands of polling places across the country. It creates the opportunity for fraud and makes recounts and result verification extremely difficult. (See the HBO movie “Recount” for an example of how manual-voting processes can become a major disaster.)

Voting online brings its own set of challenges, and it has been difficult for entrepreneurs to find a way to overcome them.

A new startup called Voatz is making significant progress.

Voatz co-founder and CEO Nimit Sawhney grew up in India where voting is an extremely difficult and often disorganized process. After studying technology, Sawhney realized there needed to be a major change in the way people voted that could take advantage of recent technological developments. Voatz was born and quickly won a SXSW Citrix Hackathon.

“We interviewed nearly 1,000 people — elected officials, volunteers who help run elections, and voters who don’t typically vote,” Sawhney told Opportunity Lives. Voatz took this feedback and developed the app to work on most modern smartphones.

One of the most important benefits of online voting is security and privacy. Using blockchain technology, Voatz can verify voters’ identities without actually storing their personal information in a database. “Once your identity is verified, your vote is anonymous,” Sawhney said. “By using the blockchain in a non-financial manner, we as a technology can’t change who you voted for, the government can’t tamper with it and a hacker can’t tamper with it.”

Voatz verifies a voter’s identity through a simple process. After downloading the app, a user has to enter her phone number (Voatz validates that you actually own the phone number provided), provide a picture of a photo ID, and take an instant “selfie.”

In the background, the voter’s identity is verified against voter rolls and facial recognition confirms that your picture matches your ID. A secure token is provided for the elections you’re eligible for, and the identifying information is deleted from the Voatz system.

This time-limited secure token is activated when you use fingerprint verification to open the app during the voting period. There is no identifying information stored with your vote besides the secure token.

“It makes the process safe, tamper-proof, and convenient,” Sawhney said.

Several small elections have already used Voatz. Sawhney said the first customers have included labor unions, universities and state political parties. In the future, Sawhney hopes to convince major corporations to use Voatz for shareholder meetings. And, of course, the ultimate goal is to use the app in major elections.

“If you like standing in line and voting on paper, you’ll always have the ability to do that,” said Sawhney. “But if you’re busy, pressed for time, disabled, sick, or elderly, you should have another option.”

Daniel Huizinga is a columnist for Opportunity Lives covering business and politics. Follow him on Twitter @HuizingaDaniel.