Bradley Tusk made millions as an early investor in Uber. Now, he’s devoting a chunk of that fortune to a cause he says goes to the heart of democracy: Mobile voting.

Filling out a ballot on a smartphone makes intuitive sense: We already work, bank and socialize through the glowing screens in our pockets. Many Americans can’t or don’t make it to the polls. Historically, only about half of U.S. citizens who are registered to vote actually do, though election watchers predict higher turnout in November. Staunch partisanship and the electoral college effectively mean that roughly a quarter of American voters determine who gets into the White House. Both trends could be magnified this year by a pandemic that has kept people at home.

For Mr. Tusk, a better political system means increasing turnout and forcing politicians to respond to the will of the people.

“We have to accept politicians for who and what they are,” he says. “We have to give them different inputs and incentives if we want different outputs.”

Mr. Tusk has financed more than a dozen mobile-voting pilot programs through a nonprofit called Tusk Philanthropies. They and others expect that over the next five to 10 years, the generations that have grown up on their smartphones will demand services for voting as well. They are testing systems now that make use of mobile phones, the internet and blockchain technology, with the goal of having these systems in place in the coming years.

Convincing skeptical election officials won’t be easy. There are already well-founded concerns about hacking existing election systems. Carting voting onto mobile devices and the internet opens the ballot box up to the myriad security vulnerabilities that plague the digital world. Can phones be secured against malware and other threats? Can voters’ identities be protected? Can hackers alter the vote count? Can the system be audited after the election?

Because of that, groups like the nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation, which is focused on modernizing the election system, have taken a hard line against internet-based voting.

Mobile voting already exists in controlled experiments. At least eight jurisdictions in the U.S. have experimented with mobile-voting systems, mainly for either overseas military personnel or for citizens with disabilities. Several dozen private organizations are dabbling with mobile voting. At least half a dozen countries have tried it as well.

Being able to vote on our phones would make the process faster, easier and more accessible for most. But it also introduces new privacy and security concerns. Is mobile voting inevitable or inherently unsafe? Photo: Storyblocks

The city of Denver used a mobile-voting system from a Boston startup called Voatz in its 2019 municipal elections. Colorado already allows every registered voter to vote by mail, but the city’s director of elections, Jocelyn Bucaro, was looking for a better option to offer voters overseas or with disabilities.

In the May 7, 2019, municipal election, 156 eligible Denver voters in 36 different countries used the Voatz app, and 119 ballots were counted.

The voters returned both a signed affidavit and the ballot. Both are recorded digitally but can be printed out. One particular benefit, Ms. Bucaro says, was that the system separated the affidavit from the ballot in a way that prevented election judges from seeing who voted for whom, keeping the votes anonymous and providing a way to audit the system. Surveyed voters who used the system said they preferred it over previous systems.

West Virginia started testing mobile voting in 2018, for military personnel overseas, and will use it again in next month’s election. Mr. Tusk has also financed mobile-voting pilot tests in Delaware, Umatilla and Jackson counties in Oregon, King County in Washington, and Utah County in Utah. This year, New Jersey used mobile voting for residents with disabilities in its May elections.

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Several companies, such as Voatz, Democracy Live and Votem, are trying to build and sell mobile-voting systems to the nation’s more than 10,000 election jurisdictions. The essential elements are similar for them all: Users download an app, verify their identity initially with some combination of a driver’s license, biometric scan, or PIN supplied by election officials, and then find their election and fill out a digital version of the physical ballot.

The complications are myriad, though. Voatz, for instance, relies on third parties for parts of its system. That opens up doors for malicious actors to force their way through, according to a group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Internet Policy Research Initiative.

Some critics also worry that taking voting out of a physical location allows voters to be coerced. Somebody may be looking over the voter’s shoulder, either influencing or outright buying a vote. Physical polling stations will likely endure to serve people who don’t have smartphones or lack internet access.

Blockchain was supposed to solve at least some online-voting issues. The basic idea of a blockchain is to create an open ledger in which a series of transactions are stored publicly for anybody to verify, while protecting the identity of the individual users. For voting, that ostensibly should result in a system where anybody could verify the validity of the election while individual voters’ choices are kept private.

On a practical level, though, it may not work. The reason bitcoin, the original blockchain, works isn’t necessarily the power of its cryptography, but a number of incentives and disincentives built into the program. Attacking the system is more expensive than participating in it and earning rewards in bitcoin. The entire transaction history is kept public, but it typically isn’t worth somebody’s time to try to piece together the identities of buyers and sellers.

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For voting, these incentives work in reverse. Because there is no cost deterrent, there is no way to dissuade malicious actors from trying to take over the network. Because every vote is valuable, critics fear there is no good way to keep a user’s identity and vote separate.

“The thing that intuitively seems like it might help in reality doesn’t,” says Michael Specter, a researcher at the Internet Policy Research Initiative, which published two reports on the Voatz app.

West Virginia, which had used Voatz in 2018, dropped it for its March primary and went with Democracy Live, which relies on a web-based rather than blockchain-based system. New Jersey used Democracy Live’s system in its May primary.

Democracy Live’s system revolves around a portal hosted on Amazon Web Services servers, where data is stored and secured. While AWS security has a track record, that hasn’t satisfied critics, who still worry about the overall concept.

“The use of unproven voting technology only provides more opportunity for disruption,” Verified Voting wrote in a letter to New Jersey officials.

Mac Warner , West Virginia’s secretary of state, says he didn’t have security concerns with either Voatz or Democracy Live, and would consider both for future elections, but wanted to try a different system.

Despite that setback, West Virginia officials were “incredibly helpful,” Voatz founder and chief executive Nimit Sawhney says, and the company is planning to run more pilots, despite criticism from MIT and elsewhere.

“The criticism is to be expected,” he says. “Our goal is to keep pushing the needle forward.”

With mobile voting still in the pilot stage, the risk of swaying an election is minimal. Fewer than 1,000 people in total have voted from their phones in live elections on the Voatz app, Mr. Sawhney says.

“The future doesn’t appear overnight,” Mr. Sawhney says. “It’s a series of steps.”

It’s clear even to proponents of mobile voting that no system is secure enough yet to be trusted for a general election. For it to take off, it’s going to have to win the trust of election officials, voters and candidates.

“The goal is to convince the loser that they lost,” MIT’s Mr. Specter says. “If you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter how much cryptography or research has gone into it.”

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