Chandler to pilot new tech in mock election this November

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On the heels of a monthslong effort to recount ballots cast in the November 2020 presidential election, the city of Chandler is piloting new technology that could potentially change the way local elections are conducted in the future.

In August 2021, Chandler City Council approved a $50,000 agreement with Voatz Inc. to conduct a blockchain technology pilot using mobile voting—meaning residents will vote from their phones in a test-run of the technology in November.

Blockchain technology allows information to be recorded in a way that makes it difficult to change information or hack into the system, according to the city.

“Think of a blockchain as a digital ledger,” reads a city webpage on the topic. “Information is recorded in this ledger, copied and distributed across a network of computer systems providing a series of checks and balances to keep data secure.”

Chandler Vice Mayor Mark Stewart shepherded the idea and brought it to Chandler City Clerk Dana DeLong in 2019, he said.

“For me, the big thing was I wanted to be able to see election results right away,” Stewart said. “The way we do it now, you don’t get that. It takes days or weeks. I’m not looking at this as a solution, but rather as a possibility. If the state or county were to implement this ever, it would be a decision from the top down and people might be suspicious of the process as opposed to a city like ours with seven people in oversight and the news to follow the journey. It’s a test; we are just testing the marketplace to see if it works.”

The pilot will run over the course of several weeks and will be modeled like the bond election that will have just occurred so residents can get a sense of what it would actually be like in a real election. The all-mail election for the city’s roughly $273 million bond will remain all-mail; the pilot will not affect that election, officials said.

In all likelihood, the pilot program will not change how the city conducts its elections. Chandler’s elections are administered by Maricopa County, and neither Maricopa County nor Arizona elections officials are on board with blockchain voting at this time, according to city officials.

“After we test it out, we can take that data and go back to the county and say this is what did and didn’t work,” Stewart said. “I think that it’s a small way to test this security measure for voters.”

Behind the technology

Residents will be asked to download an application to their mobile devices through Voatz. Then they will need to verify their identity with biometrics—like on a smartphone—and can access the ballot to vote through blockchain technology.

“The military has been using [this technology] for years,” Stewart said. “Both political parties have used it a number of times, and there are other examples of nations using it.”

Throughout a several week period in November, Chandler residents will cast their fake ballots. At the end of the month the city will tabulate and audit the results and present the findings to Chandler City Council.

“All the data shared with Voatz will be deleted within 24-48 hours,” DeLong said. “We don’t want that data; we don’t need that data for what we are doing.”

DeLong said the goal of the pilot is to see if the blockchain technology really allows for a more secure election. Stewart agreed.

“This allows the public to feel like they can audit the results,” he said. “They get a ballot receipt after voting so they can verify that nothing was changed or is wrong.”

DeLong said she did hope the test would allow the city to see if it could boost voter engagement as well.

“We want all citizens to participate,” DeLong said. “We are looking to engage all citizens. Especially people who might not think it’s a good idea. We want everyone. We are very interested, too, in seeing how citizens under 18 might feel about it. We want to know if they realize how we do it now and that this might be another option in the future.”

According to data from city of Chandler, the city saw a turnout of 84.43% with 142,350 voters casting ballots out of a total voter population of 168,598, in the November 2020 election. In the August 28, 2018 primary election, the city saw a voter turnout of 29.72% with 44,099 voters casting ballots out of a total voter population of 148,404.

Wanting to innovate

With scrutiny on the 2020 presidential election across Maricopa County and a monthslong audit into the results of the election that reaffirmed the November 2020 results, Stewart said blockchain technology might reassure voters that their information is secure and provide a chance for a “democratized audit.”

“The community expects us to be innovative,” Stewart said. “We are a smart city, and within the lane the city is responsible for, we are always looking for ways to grow and evolve. The goal of the city is to provide a better quality of life.”

But mobile voting and blockchain technology in elections may be far off in actual election use. Marcus Milam, communications officer for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, said while County Recorder Stephen Richer was not involved in the talks with Chandler regarding the pilot, that technology will not be used in Maricopa County elections any time in the near future.

“Our official position on mobile voting is that the Maricopa County Elections Department can only administer elections using tabulation equipment certified by the Secretary of State’s Office,” Milam said in an email. “Currently, all tabulation equipment approved for use in Arizona requires federal certification through the U. S. Elections Assistance Commission. It also requires the use of a paper ballot or verified paper audit trail. State statute does not currently allow for voting by phone, so mobile voting would require action by the Legislature before it could be implemented.”

Stewart said his focus is not on voting via mobile phone, but on the technology behind collecting the ballots.

“It’s about finding a faster and less vulnerable method of recording data,” Stewart said. “It’s about time and trust. At the end of the day it’s a test to see the immutability of the blockchain for voting.”

More details regarding the pilot program will be released following the Nov. 2 all-mail election.


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