Harvard Business School professor Mitchell Weiss, an expert in public entrepreneurship, debates the risks, rewards, and business models for mobile voting in his case study on “Voatz.” The mobile voting app, created by entrepreneur Nimit Sawhney, turns mobile phones into voting booths, using blockchain technology.
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MITCH WEISS: This issue of mobile voting has been circulating for some time, and people have been worrying about it for as long as the idea has been around. And people have been pursuing it. So Voatz wasn’t the first or last company to come along to try this. They weren’t responsible for what went down in Iowa.
MITCH WEISS: But the issues that are swirling around it are all the same.
BRIAN KENNY: Great. Well, I know I think people are really going to enjoy hearing about it, and I’m sure many people have asked themselves, “Really, why can’t I do this on my phone that I carry everywhere with me?” So maybe you can start us off. How would you start the class off if you were about to start an MBA class around this?
MITCH WEISS: Well, class starts in this fashion, Brian, what’s happened with Voatz, which was started by a guy named Nimit Sawhney, is that they’ve been piloting in West Virginia with the secretary of state there, a guy named Mac Warner, with the support of a gentleman named Bradley Tusk, who was Uber’s first political lobbyist and has become a big proponent of mobile voting. And where after they’ve piloted this in the state of West Virginia for the purposes of helping military voters mainly overseas vote in the 2018 congressional primaries. As far as we know, the voting has gone off without a hitch in the spring of that year, and they’re heading towards the general election in November of 2018. And around August, a tweet goes out from a security tweeter in the EU, who goes by the handle @GossiTheDog, and gets word of-
BRIAN KENNY: I’m sorry, what was that handle again?
MITCH WEISS: Yeah, it’s @GossiTheDog. You can follow him. And gets word that this is being piloted and tested in the United States, and tweets out that this is basically unsafe and finishes this tweet storm by saying, “Bonkers America”, hasn’t anybody looked into this? And so class starts out when we say, okay, you’re Nimit Sawhney, you see these tweets come across your computer. Do you respond?
BRIAN KENNY: Okay. Now, I didn’t mention in your intro that you were, before coming to HBS, you were working as chief of staff for Boston mayor, Tom Menino, legendary mayor here in the city of Boston. So you’ve been up close and personal to the election process before. How did you hear about Voatz and how does this relate back to the work that you’re doing now at Harvard Business School?
MITCH WEISS: Well, mobile voting is a topic of interest. As you said people, some people want to know why I can’t vote by this thing I have in my pocket. Other people, computer scientists, legal scholars, think this was the worst idea they’ve ever heard of. I had been somewhat aware of the swirl of these opinions. I had come across some articles about Voatz. The work that I do on public entrepreneurship is all about inventing things, new things, either for use in government by government or by private startup companies for government. And I had been on the lookout actually for many years about trying things when the trying of them was perilous itself. It’s one thing to talk about, I’ve written cases about crowdsourcing bus maps or cases about new police records management systems. And those things all need to be foolproof. But nothing needs to be more foolproof than the vote. So I had been on the lookout for trying to test our ideas about invention in our government, in the most sacrosanct of places. So when I was seeing the swirl of ideas and controversy around Voatz, I thought this would be a very good place to play out these ideas.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, absolutely. So tell us a little bit about the protagonist, Nimit Sawhney.
MITCH WEISS: Yeah, Nimit is a very interesting person. He grew up in India. He saw people who were forced to vote one way or the other when he was a young child in India. He grew up wondering, wouldn’t there be a way eventually to make sure that people could vote un-coerced? He eventually comes to the United States and after having worked on a series of cybersecurity-related startups and technology firms, not all startups, and ends up participating in a South by Southwest hackathon and basically experiments with, could we maybe use a blockchain or other applications to help provide a non-coercive voting and eventually mobile voting.
BRIAN KENNY: Okay. And I should tell, if our listeners are trying to find Voatz online, it’s V-O-A-T-Z.
MITCH WEISS: Yes.
BRIAN KENNY: Just to throw you off the scent.
MITCH WEISS: Yes. Or you could just ask @GossiTheDog, I think.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, you could ask him. He follows them. So who do they compete with? There are other players in this space. We know there was a company in Iowa. Who else is in this space?
MITCH WEISS: Well, in the most profound way, of course, what they’re competing with is the status quo. The most profound question is shouldn’t we not just continue to rely on paper ballots? Wouldn’t that be the safer, better way to go about this? That’s their most profound competition. There are a handful of other startups that were working in mobile voting. And at the time that we’re sitting down now, Brian, there are also big technology companies, including Microsoft, who have been working in the mobile voting space. So their competition is both the status quo and new entrants, and the new entrants are both other startups and some of the biggest technology companies on the planet.
BRIAN KENNY: So without getting into great granular detail, we all vote. I hope we all vote. We all are used to going to our polling places and going in and submitting our ballots. Who is managing the process? Is there somebody who is overseeing voting at large in the United States?
MITCH WEISS: Yeah, in the United States, the most fundamental thing to understand is that it’s managed mostly at the local level. So what you have are local jurisdictions, local elections offices who are in charge of administering these elections. So it’s very operationally taxing. As you can imagine, running anything that you only run periodically is difficult to do. Everybody wants it to run smoothly, they want it to want securely. There obviously over the course of US history have been moments where votes have come to question. The year 2000 is the one that looms most largely in our minds. And ever since then, people have been worried about the legitimacy of the vote. There’s a political scientist, a scholar of all this stuff named Rick Hasen, who has a book called, The Voting Wars. But the reason he’s titled his book that way is he thinks that ever since 2000 the political parties have turned elections into a weapon in and of themselves. So any hint or perception or reality around any disorganization or lack of security is amplified in that environment. In addition, you mentioned that we all vote. We don’t actually all vote and so one of the impetus for Nimit, but especially for Bradley Tusk, who is supporting these efforts financially, was to increase participation. The notion that he had, Bradley, was that if we had more people voting, it was more convenient to vote, we’d get more people to participate. We’d have a less polarized country. So that’s up in the air here too.
BRIAN KENNY: You referenced 2000. We don’t need to go into great detail, but I do want to remind people that was the one year where we had a contested election results for the presidential election down in Florida. Supreme Court had to get involved. The process they used was …
MITCH WEISS: Hanging chads.
BRIAN KENNY: Hanging Chads. So they were literally punching holes in a card of some sort, and the holes didn’t punch all the way through and then chaos resulted. And here we live in a day and age where there’s great concern about outside interference in the election who are trying to have an effect on the outcome of the election, and I think a lot of concern about security of online things just generally speaking.
MITCH WEISS: Yes. Some very prominent computer scientists and legal scholars think that mobile voting, electronic voting is one of the worst ideas around. So you weigh that against the concerns that Bradley Tusk is enumerating, which is we need more people participating in the vote and you see the competing interests. And because we’re on “red alert” as it relates to our elections, because we’re so worried about other people interfering in the elections, and because in that environment, any interference or perceived interference could throw an election to chaos. You have computer scientists, election scholars thinking this is not a safe idea.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. So let’s talk a little about Mac and his motivation for really taking a leap of faith on this one. He’s former military. He’s got children who are in the military. He knows as a person having been overseas that it’s pretty difficult to vote. Can you talk a little bit about that aspect of it?
MITCH WEISS: Mac Warner will tell you that he was overseas, he’s had been an army officer, has children all served in the army, had been overseas himself and been standing in a field and sees a shepherd on his cell phone in Afghanistan and thinks about, well gosh, the shepherd is able to do all sorts of things he needs to do on his mobile phone and I can’t even get done the kind of things I need to do on my mobile phone, and thinks a lot about voting. If you are serving overseas in the military, voting, it’s not an easy process. You might have to still find a fax machine or maybe you could find a computer, but then it’s not going to be secure because the vote is coming from your email. Maybe you’re in a submarine and you can’t get access anyway. Maybe it’s snail mail and there’s no post office nearby. So the rates of overseas military voters and overseas citizens voting are quite low. And Mac Warner, when he gets elected to become the Republican secretary of state of West Virginia, says, this is one of the things I’m going to fix. And he puts his team, he has an incredibly capable team, on figuring out what they can do about making it easier for what are called UOCAVA voters to vote and they end up piloting this project with Voatz.
BRIAN KENNY: Just generally speaking, what are the kinds of challenges that are facing people who are trying to vote? Now maybe not even military folks, but the people who are living overseas for some reason or students who are away at school. It seems to be really complicated if you’re not at home and can drive to your local precinct to cast a vote.
MITCH WEISS: Think about all the hurdles that one faces in voting, potentially, potentially. And I’m not suggesting that any of these hurdles should be too much to vote, but people who want to make it easier to vote point to, you have to go vote usually and you’re working, you have to go vote, you have to go to a specific polling place and potentially wait in line. Those lines can sometimes be quite long. Those lines can be longer for people who are not white. There’s some interesting data around the fact how long you have to wait to vote may depend on the color of your skin, where your precinct is. So there are people are disproportionately affected by these hurdles, I guess is the point. And there’s been a long legacy of that of course in this country. If you’re a physically disabled, it may actually be quite hard for you to vote. There’s ways to get assistance, but even those things are hard, and also can in some ways violate the sacrosanct privacy of your vote. They’re real matters of everyday life, and mobile voting might make it more convenient. Mac Warner tells a story about how one of the overseas voters, voted from their kitchen table and couldn’t believe just how different this was from the everyday voting experience of going to a polling place, waiting in line, doing it on a work day. Now there have been a number of measures that have been taken the United States over the past couple of years to try to make that easier. Many states have early voting so you can vote on other days. Many states have mail in voting. Interestingly, I believe that the early data on that doesn’t suggest that it affects participation rates that much. We don’t know what the outcome of mobile voting would be, but it at least puts into student’s minds the question of whether or not this mobile thing, voting thing is really going to do what it says it’s set out to do.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Are there other places in the world where people are doing this with success?
MITCH WEISS: There’s been a little bit of e-voting in Estonia. There’s other places that are looking into it. It has happened in a handful of places, yes. It’s by far not the dominant way that people vote.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. What about the current system that we have? How stable and secure is that? There’s been a lot of people, especially since 2000, who have raised questions about that.
MITCH WEISS: The system has its vulnerabilities. You mentioned the Iowa caucus, certainly this new software, which was a program called Shadow that was brought in to be used in the Iowa caucus was new, early accounts are that it was relatively untested. So it was at fault for the chaos that rained after the Iowa caucus, but there were lots of other things involved in counting votes in the Iowa caucus that didn’t have to do with the app that also didn’t work that well. In some ways what it did, the whole episode brought transparency to what had been otherwise un-transparent process.
BRIAN KENNY: And caucuses are not like typical elections, right?
MITCH WEISS: They’re not like typical elections, but they have all the same concerns. Did people get represented and were they able to vote? Was their vote counted correctly? Was their vote communicated correctly? Does the actual vote reflect the intended vote? The Iowa episode revealed, I think, questions on all those dimensions, and those dimensions to your question exist in all votes. Are people getting equal access to the polls? If they’re getting access to the polls, are they able to vote in the way that they intended? Is their vote counted the way they intended it to be? You? Was there a ballot marked correctly? Was the ballot design influential in some way or the other? Were votes tabulated correctly? Where they communicated directly? And again, as Rick Hasen would point out, this is all now happening in an era of Twitter and other social media where anybody can weigh in on anything and it makes the vote very, very fraught.
BRIAN KENNY: So, let’s go back to Voatz then, now that we’ve got all that background to think about. They get this, Mac Warner says, I want to give this a try. So what happens? It gets a little crazy for them just trying to make everything, pull everything together in time.
MITCH WEISS: They ended up having a very short deadline to pull this together on, but between the time that Mac Warner’s team gets comfortable with them doing it and the beginning of the primary elections in the spring of 2018, again, think about all things that you have to do in order to get a mobile vote to come off without a hitch, including just getting the actual punctuation of every single paper ballot converted to something that’s going to be communicated digitally down to every little apostrophe or parenthesis or whatever it might be. So they basically, it comes very much down to the wire, but they do finish in time to get started for the spring primary, and they do end up having just a little over a dozen voters. It was a very small pilot. It was two counties in West Virginia. It was just the overseas voters in those counties, only the ones who wanted to vote this way, nobody was mandated to vote this way. It was a very, very small pilot. So they were able to pull it off, and best we know, nobody’s vote was tampered with.
BRIAN KENNY: So, what was the criticism of the tweeter in this case?
MITCH WEISS: Well, so the criticism of the tweeter is that this is still not safe. That mobile voting … It’s not just the tweeter, by the way. The tweet sets off a series of increasingly elevated conversations about whether this should or shouldn’t be done. And the concern is that phones are hackable. Electronic systems are otherwise hackable. That you’re exposing an already vulnerable system. We talked about the vulnerabilities, the security vulnerabilities, the organizational vulnerabilities, that you’re exposing an already vulnerable system to more vulnerabilities. That’s the criticism, that this is bonkers because you’re already under attack. Why would you open up another front of a potential attack for outsiders or insiders to mess with the vote.
BRIAN KENNY: I guess the central players in this, how do they think about that? Do they respond? Obviously they feel like what they’re doing is secure enough.
MITCH WEISS: Nimit’s response would be that what they’re doing is secure, period, that they’ve tested and retested. That they’ve set up bounty programs to find people who could find vulnerabilities, that the technology is safe. Bradley’s view is that it’s important for democracy that more people vote. And it’s important for solving the biggest problems that we face in the world, that more people participate. He believes the vote should be safe, I’m not suggesting that he thinks otherwise, his primary focus is essentially what kind of democracy do we have if people aren’t voting en masse. So that’s his main lens on the problem.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. So as you discuss this in class, you’ve got students from all over the world there, I’m curious what other people’s experiences are with their election process and sort of how they think about this in the context.
MITCH WEISS: Yes. Most of the students of course come from countries where they get to vote. Not every country. Most of the students have voted. Most of them experienced it for I think the ways that all of us experience it. It’s typically a moment of civic pride and duty, and it comes with some of its logistical conundrums. Certainly their country is much bigger than the United States, which are considering, have thought about the potential for mobile voting.
MITCH WEISS: So, yeah, students range all over the map in terms of how they respond to this from their own personal experience. Did they have to wait in line, not wait in line? Did their country have to fight for the right to vote more recently or later? Did certain people in those countries have to fight for the vote more recently or later? But they all still come to it with a sense of, there’s something special and important about the vote and wanting people to vote, but also wanting it to be prudent and so they’re wrestling with the same debate that society’s wrestling with around this. It would be better to have more people voting and make it easier to vote. It has to be safe. How do we reconcile those two objectives? The students also react to it quite differently in terms of whether they think Voatz and things like it, mobile voting, are a good idea. Whether they think entrepreneurs, the big question is whether entrepreneurs should be working on something so sacrosanct as the vote, or whether they should, that’s the one thing that should be reserved for what is just the tried and true. But the point is, the students are all over the map in terms of whether or not they think this is a good idea or not. Whether or not technologists should be going after something as sacrosanct as the vote or not. And they roughly divide in people who think democracy, government needs to be constantly reinvented. That’s what’s been happening ever since it started. Or who think, no, government should be one of these things that has a place for it where some things are just safe. Sometimes we just do what’s tried and true. There’s some places which the entrepreneurs and the technologists would keep their hands off of.
BRIAN KENNY: And those are sort of the, I guess, philosophical questions around this, but we haven’t even really talked about the business side of this. Is there really a business model here that anybody should wade into?
MITCH WEISS: Even just the public voting market is quite substantial. And if you expand beyond the United States, you can imagine you could build a quite successful business just in voting technology. In fact, there’s a small number, it’s a little bit of a quasi-oligopoly, a small number of companies already, provide the technology that people use when they go into the voting booth. So there is a market for that. It’s not an easy market to go into. In fact, when Nimit got started, a lot of the venture capitalists who he spoke with said, this is a terrible idea. Totally fractured in terms of state and local leadership, very long sales cycles, not all that much openness to experimentation. So, there is a business model for voting technology. There’s a lot of federal funding for it. There’s lot of other funding for it. It’s not clear that it’s a super business opportunity or super for entrepreneurs if you limit yourself to municipal voting or public voting in the United States. But it starts to get more appealing perhaps if you expand out beyond just the United States or if you expand out beyond just voting in public elections. We vote on all sorts of other things. So the people who are building voting technology think it could be used for potentially proxy votes or student council votes. In fact, one of the places they pilot some of these things are at universities who are running their student body elections. If you think about all the other kinds of elections that happen, you can imagine this technology being used in those places. So it presents a business opportunity in that way. Some of the leadership at Voatz will tell you, they imagine a day where voting becomes such a big, robust, collective activity that many more people are voting that the app itself becomes a platform for many other kinds of civic engagement. You can imagine things like this veering off in other directions. So it is a business model and it’s certainly one that Nimit and his team are pursuing and a handful of others. And at this point, as I said, Microsoft, Amazon, others have absolutely entered into the election space. So Microsoft and Amazon see an opportunity here, and so do startups.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. So just as a parting question here, as students are, are packing up their stuff at the end of class, what are you hoping they’re walking out of the room thinking about?
MITCH WEISS: This is the last case of the year in public entrepreneurship. We spend the entire semester talking about how we could go after what I’ve come to call possibility government, which is to do things that would only possibly work. That we need to move away from probability government ,where we do things that will probably work but lead to middling and mediocre outcomes, and towards possibility government, where as I said, things would only possibly work. It means they probably won’t. That’s the realm of the entrepreneur. We spent a whole semester basically trying to say, gosh, why do we need to do this? Because we have unsolved problems. How could we do this? With public leaders and the public who have more appetite for trying new things. How tactically could we do this in terms of how do we get new ideas, how do we try them, how do we scale those ideas? They spent all semester thinking about this and probably coming around maybe to the notion of possibility, and then the last day we want to say, wait, how far do you want to take that? Just as far as the vote, just as far as democracy? And I hope students leave with basically two ideas in their mind at the same time, which is one that absolutely after we’ve used all the tools and tips and techniques or learned all the tools and tips and techniques of public entrepreneurship, of possibility government, that reinvigorating and reinventing our democracy is a place that they should use those towards, because we do live in a democracy that’s threatened. We do live in a democracy where people feel like their ideas aren’t represented. We do live in a democracy where we’re not solving our biggest problems. I want them to feel like possibility could and should be for that, but I also want them to think about the perils of doing that, the dangers of doing that, the risks of doing that and the responsibility they have to do that wisely and prudently. I hope they’ll leave class with both feeling the potential of possibility of government, and also feeling the duty that comes along with it.
BRIAN KENNY: That’s great, Mitch. Thanks so much for joining us today.
MITCH WEISS: My pleasure, Brian. Thank you.
BRIAN KENNY: If you enjoy Cold Call, you might like other podcasts on the HBR Presents Network. Whether you’re looking for advice on navigating your career, you want the latest thinking in business and management, or you just want to hear what’s on the minds of Harvard Business School professors, the HBR Presents Network has a podcast for you. Find them on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School on the HBR Presents Network.