Even if it was because anxious parents refused to turn the television off, every American who’s well into young adulthood now remembers the story of the 2000 presidential elections.
Former Texas Gov. George W. Bush emerged the victor, but the road to the top of the free world was marred by a controversial ballot hang up in Florida that was ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Because the returns in Florida — the state the election hinged on — were very close, a state-mandated machine recount was performed and significantly slashed Bush’s lead. That event, followed by calls for a manual recount of certain ballots, became part of a more than month-long battle over the correct acceptance of the results in Florida, but the Supreme Court eventually stepped in to close the argument.
Adam Ernest sometimes wonders about how the course of history might have gone had there been another way to legitimately decide who won the presidency then.
Ernest, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 2004, launched a firm about a year ago called Follow My Vote that functions on the principle of more open and honest elections.
Supported by the same kind of technology that runs the digital currency Bitcoin, FMV provides an online voting platform that, among other things, allows users to verify the legitimacy of other voters who are identified by no more than individual identification keys, or codes that enclose each voter’s information and ensure they are, in fact, registered. A voter’s name is not disclosed.
The details of the cast ballots are put on a public ledger that allows FMV users to view and even vet an election’s results. In other words, when a person votes, his or her key gets attached to the name of whichever candidate they choose and that pairing is immediately published for others to see.
“Everyone knows that your vote is your vote,” Ernest said.
With Bitcoin, all the transactions, and how much money each user has, can be viewed on the public ledger.
FMV users verify their voter registration by using the computer the software is on to snap a picture of themselves and their proof of identification.
Ernest said the online verification is a much more condensed version of what occurs on election nights when election staff verify each voter.
Ernest and Dan Larimer, founder of BitShares, the system that supports FMV, each say the voting process itself comes with a natural shield against hackers because no votes are sent to a third-party central location that can be attacked. FMV, they say, trumps the traditional ballot box, which they say requires current voters to trust that someone or something else accurately counts the votes.
FMV users are basically their own ballot boxes, which are each opened right after a vote is cast, Larimer said.
“It’s really about giving people a voice,” Larimer said. “The greatest evil is having an election that is corrupted when people thought it was honest.”
With Bitcoin, access to a user’s account is enclosed in a cryptographic key that has to be physically stolen from a user or hacked if the user stores the code on a computer that’s connected to the Internet, Larimer said. Bitcoin users are essentially their own banks and don’t leave their money in a location they can’t directly protect, he said.
“We’re doing for voting what Bitcoin did for money,” Larimer said.
Ernest hopes to release the FMV software commercially before the end of the year.
One of the challenges Ernest faces is finding jurisdictions that would be open to testing the system, he said.
“We are actively seeking out opportunities to pilot the software,” he said.
Virginia is currently looking at ways to evolve online voting for overseas servicemen and women, but is seeking guidance from those in the field on how to repair flaws that can compromise election results, Ernest said.
FMV plans to follow up with the state, with hopes that Virginia eventually puts out a project bid that the company would be able to compete for, Ernest said.
But FMV has made some promising strides since it launched out of NuSpark, a still relatively new and free workspace in Blacksburg that hopeful or early stage entrepreneurs frequent to iron out their ideas for a company.
This past fall, FMV made the move up to the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, where it’s sharing space and taking part in a joint venture with BitShares.
FMV is one of the companies that BitShares is trying to help grow with a $3 million development budget, but Larimer and Ernest each declined to say exactly how much the digital currency community is putting into the online voting tool.
The other initiative FMV is pushing is online voting in general, an area Ernest said can speed up voting and improve voter turnout.
FMV has drawn the interest of the California Association of Voting Officials, a nonprofit that advocates improving the safeguards that will eventually lead to the widespread acceptance of online voting.
Online voting will lead to greater voter turnout largely because it will be more convenient and easier to do for certain groups of people, especially those who are disabled, said Brent Turner, CAVO’s secretary.
Election officials across the country are still hesitant on online voting generally because of the security risks, Turner said. But FMV, he said, presents some positive news for the evolution of elections because it employs open source software, or a program based on code the public can see.
While the actual code will be “locked down,” the public would be able to notice any corruption of the open source voting software, Turner said.
“If there was a core piece of code that may have been corrupted, that would be called out by the community,” he said. “Anytime you have the biggest amount of eyes possible, it results in the best code, rather than having it in a very small group with no oversight.”
Online voting, however, will almost be inevitable as long as the use of smartphones continues to grow, Turner said.
Jason Kelly, a Virginia Tech political science professor who has done research on elections, said he’s generally in favor of what FMV appears to be trying.
“I’m actually a fan of a push toward online voting,” Kelly said. “I think you have to be careful, but if it’s done right, I don’t see any reasons why we couldn’t eventually move to an online voting system.”
But despite the assurances Ernest is promoting, Kelly said voter corruption is still very possible, regardless of how ballots are cast.
Kelly said online voters are not at a polling place where election officials are there to ensure no one is interfering with voters.
“This would be a great tool to engage in that type of behavior,” Kelly said, referring to voter intimidation.
Ballot box corruption in the U.S. is also pretty minimal today, Kelly said.
But what happens to ballots under the current system is really a secret once the votes are cast, Larimer said.
“It’s critical for society to have provably honest elections,” he said.
Ernest concedes FMV won’t be able to truly verify election results unless all voters in an election use the software. But that’s what the software is aiming for if it’s able to gain widespread acceptance and use, he said.
Ernest thinks the 2000 presidential elections wouldn’t have become so contested had the people then all voted on a decentralized and open-source online system.
“That would never be a problem again,” he said.