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Deblockracy Now? Vermont Taps Blockchain to Increase Civic Participation


Published October 16, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.


When South Burlington leaders recently began to consider building an indoor recreational center, they wanted to know what features residents most coveted. Turf? A movement studio? A maker space?

Fortunately, there's an app for that.

Since June, the city has been partnering with Consensus, a Toronto-based tech firm, on a new smartphone application that allows South Burlington to poll its residents on public policy questions. So the city put the question to the app's local users, and 563 of them responded.

The winner? One hundred sixty-one said they hoped the rec center would include an indoor walking track.

The app, also called Consensus, is part of a new wave of products that use secure blockchain technology to make democracy more accessible. Some tech evangelists hope such apps will eventually be used to conduct official elections in Vermont and throughout the United States.

"We really ought to be voting on our smartphones," said John Burton, chair of the Distributed Ledger Governance Association, a Burlington-based trade group that promotes the burgeoning blockchain industry. "The next generation is like, 'This is crazy. Let's get with it. Make [voting] more convenient.'"

Blockchain, originally developed for the bitcoin cryptocurrency, is a recordkeeping technology that stores information on a distributed network, rather than on a single server controlled by a company or government. Proponents argue that it's a secure and transparent tool to conduct business of virtually every type over the internet.

Consensus uses blockchain technology to anonymously record, store and verify votes cast by the app's users, according to chief strategy officer Dustin Plett. Though his company has no plans to corner the public elections market, he sees the app as an antidote to civic apathy and social media-fueled partisanship.

"It can accelerate decision making and [help policy makers] better understand how citizens really feel," Plett said.

The company's ongoing pilot program with South Burlington has allowed it to work out kinks in the app before making it available more broadly. One early problem it faced was figuring out a way to verify that users actually live in South Burlington. At first, they were required to scan photo identification showing a local address, but some hesitated.

Now the app uses smartphone geolocation to verify that users are within the city's borders, though that doesn't guarantee they're actually residents. According to Plett, 1,056 people have taken part in the polls, and 783 of them have been verified as using the app in South Burlington.

City manager Kevin Dorn, who forged the partnership with Consensus, believes it's been successful. "It's another way to reach out to the public on a real-time basis to ask their views on a particular issue," he said.

Dorn also has another motive: to demonstrate that South Burlington is welcoming to blockchain companies, which he hopes will relocate to the city. The state has similarly sought to court the industry with a 2018 law allowing corporate structures attractive to such technology companies. South Burlington has also been working with another tech firm, Silicon Valley-based Propy, on a blockchain system that helps record and manage real estate transactions.

So far, the city has put 21 questions to Consensus users, who can elect to receive a push notification every time one is asked and have two or three weeks to answer it. At first, South Burlington focused on quality-of-life issues, asking residents whether the city's bike paths were well maintained (yes), whether the community could use another dog park (yes) and whether they were affected by noise from Burlington International Airport (not at all).

But now, according to Coralee Holm, the city's director of community engagement and innovations, "We're testing the waters a little bit around what we ask." The app is currently asking whether users "know someone who has been a victim of domestic violence" and, if so, "do you know that it was reported to the police?"

City council chair Helen Riehle said she thinks Consensus has potential, but she'd like more of South Burlington's 19,000 residents to use it — and more frequently. "I'm still confident that it will be a fantastic tool to gauge a little more in-depth thinking of the residents, but I don't think we have evolved to it yet," she said. "In some ways, they're still working out the bugs."

Other Vermont municipalities have also been pondering the potential of blockchain technology for civic functions. Montpelier City Clerk John Odum thinks it could be used to store voter registration information so that it's harder to hack. He said he's been trying to find a way to deploy the technology in Vermont's capital city.

"I think it's a potentially extraordinary tool not just for securing voter participation data but creating a powerful verification scheme that could alert me, as an election administrator, to any tampering," he said.

Odum is less enthusiastic about moving official elections to the smartphone — at least, for now. "Blockchain is such a new shiny thing that it can give people a false sense of security," he said. "If you put your vote in the blockchain, that vote is, sure, going to be secure and verifiable ... But with a mobile voting app, everybody's smartphone or tablet becomes a voting machine, and those things are hackable."

Another challenge, according to Burton, is verifying a remote voter's identity. In Estonia, a pioneer in electronic voting, every citizen has a state-issued digital ID card. It can be used as a travel document, an insurance card, and to digitally sign documents and vote. Burton's blockchain trade group, he said, has been asking the question, "How can we create a digital ID?"

Voatz, a Boston-based tech company, has tried to tackle that problem by matching government-issued IDs with "video selfies" a user takes, according to founder and CEO Nimit Sawhney. Once it verifies a voter's identity, Voatz uses smartphones' biometric features, such as thumbprints and facial recognition, to retain security within the app.

"So there are several checks here to make sure that it's you and that you are an authorized voter before you get access to the ballot," Sawhney said.

Last November, West Virginia used Voatz's app to make it easier for overseas voters and deployed members of the military to cast ballots in state and federal elections. This year, jurisdictions in Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Washington are following suit.

Sawhney hopes to continue rolling out Voatz to other regions of the country — he has unsuccessfully courted the City of Burlington and the State of Vermont — and eventually move beyond absentee voters. "But it will be done in a slow, step-by-step way because we want to make sure that the security improves and people learn," he said.

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos says that while he's "not a Luddite, in terms of using technology," he's cool to the prospect of remote voting. "The issue is the security of it," he said. "Many folks out in the field do not believe that blockchain or electronic voting is ready for prime time."

Given Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election and hack state voting systems, Condos thinks it's worth keeping elections old-school for now. "I consider a voter-marked paper ballot to be the gold standard," he said.

Learn more about this technology at "Leveraging Blockchain to Build Startups and Jobs" at the Vermont Tech Jam, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Thursday, October 17, at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction. Free.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Deblockracy Now? | Vermont taps blockchain tech to increase civic participation"