Man using his Mobile Phone outdoor

Denver will try out a system in this year's municipal elections allowing active-duty military personnel and other city residents overseas to vote with their smartphones.

The pilot program will use a blockchain-based election app called Voatz, produced by Boston-based Voatz Inc., a unit of Salt Lake City-based Overstock.com Inc.

The Denver Elections Division announced Thursday that it is seeking volunteers from among several thousand military and overseas voters eligible to vote in Denver elections to use the Voatz app to receive their ballots and cast their votes digitally.

The pilot program will apply to Denver's May 7 election and, if needed, the June 4 runoff. The runoff will take place if no candidate for Denver mayor gets at least 50 percent of the vote on May 7.

The pilot program is being funded by Tusk Philanthropies, an organization founded by businessman Bradley Tusk that seeks to raise participation in U.S. elections through mobile-voting technology. The Colorado Springs-based National Cybersecurity Center is also involved.

The state of West Virginia tested the Voatz system during last year's primary and general elections. According to West Virginia officials, 144 of the state's voters used the app to cast ballots from 30 different countries.

The app has also been used in other settings, such as state party conventions and student elections. According to Overstock.com, Voatz already has been used to cast more than 80,000 votes in dozens of elections.

As described by the city:

"The Voatz mobile app uses blockchain encryption to provide a more secure and convenient way to vote for our military and overseas voters. Blockchain technology provides a distributed ledger that is unchangeable and fully auditable to provide a higher degree of security and ballot anonymity than existing remote ballot delivery systems. By enabling voters to receive and cast their ballots from their mobile device, the mobile application provides a more convenient way to vote."

Jocelyn Bucaro, Denver's deputy director of elections, says that the encryption makes digital ballot transmission "end-to-end verifiable [and] provides redundancy and transparency while providing more security than simply returning a ballot via email,” which is how many overseas voters now cast their ballots, along with postal mail.

Eventually, Bucaro said, the system could be used by voters with disabilities who would otherwise have difficulty casting ballots.

The Boston Business Journal reported last August during the West Virginia tryout that some election-security experts were skeptical about smartphone voting, saying the devices can be vulnerable to hackers.

Voatz CEO Nimit Sawhney fired back at the time, saying critics were being "alarmist." He noted that the app was being tested with a relatively small subset of voters, and insisted that the technology was more secure than other options for overseas voting.

"We’re not claiming that this is ready for millions of people to use,” Sawhney told the Boston Business Journal. "For the specific use case we are tackling we believe it’s a slightly better, more secure way to vote.”

In a blog post Thursday, Voatz conceded that the technology is still under development.

"With each of these pilots, we learn valuable feedback and continue to integrate and build with forward progress," the company said. "Denver is learning from West Virginia, and the lessons we learn from this Denver pilot will inevitably produce valuable feedback that we will continue to welcome and integrate."

Voters who volunteer to try out Voatz will need to jump through a few hoops: First they'll fill out an absentee ballot request. Then, using the app, they'll upload a picture of their photo ID and shoot a 10-second video of themselves, and their identity will be verified through the app's biometric authentification system, using either a fingerprint scan or a retinal scan, depending on the device.

Voting using Voatz will begin March 23, which is ahead of when paper ballots are to be mailed to Denver residents, the week of April 15.

“Voatz has already undergone dozens of successful pilots, but the work the team is doing with the city of Denver has the feel of an ice-breaking moment for the world of voting security,” said Overstock.com CEO and founder Patrick Byrne in a statement.

“I applaud the innovative and forward-looking thinking of the Denver Elections Division and the seeds they have sown towards a true democratic system in which everyone has the ability to cast their vote in a secure and easily accessible way.”

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