My guest today is Nimit Sawhney, CEO and Co-founder of Voatz, a mobile voting platform. Joining him is repeat guest Robert Dowling, CEO of Hudson Cutler, a sought-after PR executive by companies focused on disruptive technologies. This is a special session of the podcast where Robert and I moderate questions with Nimit and we have a 3-way conversation around the 'democratization' of the voting process – little “d” not big “D.” This is a non-partisan session around the massive disruption taking place in one of the only remaining sectors – GovTech – that hasn’t been fully overhauled just yet by technology innovation.
We dig into the reasons why voting technology is at an inflection point at the moment and also hit on use cases that have been explored not just in the US but overseas, as well. Many of which Voatz has enabled.
We also cover the 4 main areas of challenge for any modern voting system – security, accessibility. Identity and auditability.
Notable fact: on that point, Voatz uses the blockchain to handle all of the above and Nimit lays out his thesis as to why blockchain is the perfect innovation for the voting sector.
The three of us also do a deep-dive on what come next and what stands in the way of mobile voting getting to scale from voter perception and political/legislative challenges to why investors are perking up in the space. Enjoy!
Nimit Sawhney is Co-Founder and CEO of Voatz, Inc, an elections platform that uses identity proofing, biometrics, and blockchain technology to enable end-to-end verifiable and accessible remote voting via smartphones and tablets. Voatz has run more than 76 elections in partnership with both major political parties at the state level, as well as with state/county governments, towns, cities, universities, professional organizations including the country’s first mobile voting project with West Virginia in 2018. Nimit’s background is in mobile security and software development, previously serving as Director of R&D at Oberthur Technologies, and prior to that, as Director of R&D at MoreMagic Solutions.
Nimit holds a graduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Business Management and is an alumni of the Harvard Business School’s YALP (Young Americans Leadership Program) Class of 2019.
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8:10 What is Voatz doing at this time?
In 2020, we did 23 elections - 21 in the US, 1 in Brazil and 1 in Venezuala, millions of voters voting at the same time - a smartphone app being used for the election in Utah and Oregon
10:32 What’s the origin of Voatz?
Him and his brother were at a hackathon at SXSW in 2014 and accidentally created Voatz
13:10 Is this his first startup and do you consider yourself a “founder”?
This is his first startup but worked for another startup after grad school. It became clear that his work style was to be a founder. He has found he meandered into it. He has found as a “founder” he can’t really go back to traditional employment.
16:15 Access is a bigger issue?
Background in cybersecurity, technologies that haven’t been used in the election space, a clear connection was made
In the past few years, he’s noticed a large portion of voters are not voting because it is difficult to vote in the traditional way
It is possible to do things in a safe enough way, we can survive with threats
19:45 Where are we in the world of mobile voting? What are the challenges?
Still at an early stage - for large scale deployment
System is being used in 5 states at government level and in 6 states at the party level
International progress looks better in the short-term - Estonia, Canada, Philippines, Brazil, etc.
There are headwinds from the legislative side, and they have lost a bit of trust from the legislative institution, how do you build trust from the ground up?
It’s not enough to have the best technology out there, but people have to have an emotional connection and trust it
They started with demographics that are traditionally unable to vote in person - i.e. Military stationed overseas, people with disabilities, and due to COVID - people who were impacted by COVID
24:00 What are the statistics of people who are willing to vote by phone?
Research is early, very little data
In 2018 - 3-5%, but in past 16 months, turnout increased by 250% and others by 8 times
Anecdotally, they expect a double digit improvement
Bigger impact could be seen in local elections
27:22 Hot buttons with voters, legislators and others?
Everything resides with the voters
There’s been an immense loss of trust
It was implied that paper ballot voting that nothing bad happens
People are looking for a way to revalidate that trust
With this way of voting, they can verify their vote was received and tabulated
This may hold the key for restoring trust
31:45 How does Voatz use the blockchain?
The blockchain plays a specific role
Not a magic pill
Every oval marked on your ballot gets recorded as a unique transaction
No single point of failure
Gives voters a receipt is used to audit their ballot start-to-finish
Governance layer - for the first time governments are giving up a part of the process, the governments are not running all the nodes - it’s controlled by a cloud infrastructure, ordinary citizens, both political parties, non-profits, NGOs, etc.
It brings transparency and builds that trust
Every voter is essentially an auditor
This makes the entire process more equitable and transparent
36:40 What’s going on on the legislative and political front? Is the new administration more friendly to this type of technology?
Very interesting what’s happening on the state level and the federal level
After the recent election, there has been a lot of activity
Local legislators putting out bills that are bipartisan, and others that seek to improve accessibility
At the national level there are some very high profile bills, and are a reaction to what’s going on in some states after the recent election
There is an attempt to ban all electronic forms of voting
For this to happen in the most technologically advanced country in the world, it is very concerning
41:45 How is the technology community rallying around this issue?
There is quite a bit of support, but not in a way that brings about legislative change
Controlled by a section of the educational community
Some of the energy needs to be channeled into appropriate legislative action
43:05 Is access to voting comparable to access to healthcare? Is it a human right?
He would agree, and the United Nations also includes democratic voting in their SDGs
44:05 What is the role of the federal government for this? What is the ideal way to be engaged with the new administration?
Federal government can play a positive role
They can secure the infrastructure and firepower the control
If they wanted to use their weight and make sure that we have an accessible online voting system
The technology and resources exist and the federal government could play a critical role in this
There’s a lot of emphasis in terms of promoting startups and innovation adn this needs to extend to the election space
Remove the anti-technology clauses from the bills
There’s a need for resilience in the system
47:20 How is Voatz good for the investor?
From an investor perspective, this is a perfect double bottom line scenario
It requires patience as this is a long haul, but it’s a unique space - not much innovation in the past 2-3 decades
For the first time an election system has a touchpoint with a voter
This is now a tool for citizens to engage on a regular basis and the government to engage the voters on a regular basis
49:55 Do investors look at Voatz the same as another blockchain startup?
No. There’s not enough metrics
A lot of investors are logical in their analyses and if there’s no data there’s nothing to analyze
Nobody’s ever done it before
It is nontraditional thinking