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7 Startups Working on Voting Machine Technology

Removing the nuances from an industry and boiling it down to its essence is important when you’re an investor. Unless you’re spending your money philanthropically, you want to know the bottom line: Is this a company with smart leadership, strong intellectual property, and clear potential to scale? So it’s with these measures in mind that we take a look at the current state of voting technology. There is perhaps no other field quite so hungry for innovation—and as many would agree, decades past the need for new thinking.

First, a logical question: What does the field of voting tech look like today? ProCon.org has a good list of referenced answers to the question of who produces current voting machine technology, a question we previously assumed was straightforward. Boy, are we red-faced. The first listed answer, from John R. Patrick, former VP of Internet Technology at IBM, sums it up well:

At one point, there were 19 voting machine companies listed in the Federal Election Commission Buyer’s Guide, but the guide is no longer available. Through a series of mergers, acquisitions, and business failures, the voting machine industry currently is dominated by the three companies. All three companies are privately held and do not disclose their revenue or profits.

To make matters more complex, election administration in the U.S. falls to the states, resulting in a mish-mash of methods across the country. Verified Voting has an excellent overview if you’re interested, but the short answer is that four types of equipment are currently in use, with optical scan and direct recording electronic systems (DREs) the most common.

Our voting systems are a mess. So which startups are working to change this?

Blockchain in Voting Machine Technology

The best answer right now lies in blockchain technology, that magical word you’re seeing pop up more and more these days. For the uninitiated, blockchain, the basis of bitcoin, is a continuously growing list of linked blocks, secured using cryptography. Or as the people who, literally, wrote the book on it define it:

The blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value.

An incorruptible network of records—sounds like an excellent platform on which to run elections. Several companies agree and are building interesting solutions using blockchain.

Sovereign, launched last week by the non-profit Palo-Alto-based Democracy Earth, is an open-source and decentralized democratic governance protocol for any kind of organization. The company emerged from Y Combinator and has raised $220,000. Sovereign combines the idea of delegative democracy, aka liquid democracy, with blockchain technology, producing a finite number of tokens called ‘votes’ that are assigned to registered users.

Credit: Jakob Jochmann

Liquid democracy allows people to vote on an issue or delegate their vote to someone they think knows more on the subject. Those delegates can, in turn, pass their votes upwards through the chain. Users can see how their delegate voted and reclaim their vote to use themselves, if they so desire. No knowledge of blockchains is required to vote using Sovereign; one just downloads the app. As New Scientist noted, recording these votes on a blockchain requires complex mathematics that makes tampering with them after the fact practically impossible.

The Boule Foundation, launched in February 2017, is taking a similar approach to blockchain voting, developing a system that allows election organizers to purchase tokens with which their electors can vote. They’re also working to provide a secure and anonymous gateway to confirm the vote. The company has impressive advisers on its bench, including the United Nations Internet Society Blockchain Advisor, and is currently holding a creative pre-sale initial coin offering (ICO) through September 24, based in bitcoin of course. You can read our take on whether we think ICOs are a scam here.

Credit: Votem

Red, White and Blue Voting Machine Technology

Virginia-based Follow My Vote hews close to a theme, incorporating on July 4, 2012 and raising its latest round (undisclosed) on July 4, 2016. Touting its secure online voting platform, Follow My Vote develops open source, end-to-end blockchain voting software for use in government-sponsored elections worldwide. With the ability to audit the ballot box and watch elections progress in real-time, Follow My Vote’s voting machine technology offers what they call “unparalleled electoral transparency.”

Voting Machine Technology on the Go

Votem is a startup out of Cleveland focusing on mobile solutions. Founded in 2014, the company is currently funded by its founder Pete Martin, an SAP veteran, and has developed a mobile voting platform using blockchain. Interestingly, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame used Votem successfully for its fan vote for 2017 inductees. Nearly 2 million global votes were captured without software bots’ interference, reportedly the largest use of online voting using blockchain to date.

Beyond Blockchain Voting Machine Technology

Blockchain isn’t the only game in town for voting machine technology. 

Scytl is a bigger player in the field, offering a variety of secure electronic voting and electoral modernization solutions for the public and private sectors. Founded in 2001 and based in Barcelona, the company has raised $126 million, with Vulcan Ventures one of the most notable. Its patented security technologies, incorporating unique cryptographic protocols, carry out all types of electoral processes electronically, securely, and in an auditable manner. 

Credit: Scytl

Scytl was spun off from a university research group and it shows—its current patent portfolio is the largest in the industry, composed of more than 40 international patents in election security. Over the past decade, it has managed over 100,000 electoral events electronically across more than 35 countries, including Canada, the United States, Mexico, Switzerland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and many more.

Getting back to the basics (kind of) is Boston-based Clear Ballot, a startup hoping to improve on both the hardware and software of existing systems that scan and count paper ballots. Founded in 2009, the company has raised $18 million from Bessemer Venture Partners, Peter Lynch—the former manager of Fidelity’s Magellan Fund—and others. Clear Ballot provided vote-counting audits in the state of Maryland and several counties in Florida during the 2016 presidential election. Its ClearVote Vote Visualization system, which creates an image file of every ballot and lets election officials quickly call up ballots with questionable markings to verify votes, is now in the process of being certified at the national level.

Votebox, a New York company founded in January of this year, develops cutting-edge internet voting and governance solutions for the public and private sectors. They have raised an undisclosed amount from D.C.-based incubator 1776. The process is super simple: create a voting event, direct voters to your branded website, ballots submitted are encrypted and anonymous, and results are immediately generated. The company cites use cases from corporate to educational and political.

Conclusion

The field of voting machine technology is an interesting one. The established system is murky and riddled with errors. Many of the players are new entrants, and there seem to be abundant opportunities for more innovation, especially as blockchain tech moves further into the mainstream.

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