Voting From the Privacy of Your Couch

Governments in 42 countries use Scytl’s election software.
Illustration: 731

Electoral fraud has been pervasive in Nigeria since it returned to civilian rule in 1999. This year, to prevent tampering with ballots on the way to the capital, poll workers nationwide used technology from a Spanish software maker called Scytl to scan the tallies and transmit them electronically. Despite predictions of violence, voters elected an opposition candidate—removing an incumbent from office for the first time—in a process Human Rights Watch described as “mostly peaceful.”

Governments in 42 countries are using software from Scytl (rhymes with “title”) to bring elements of their elections online, from registering voters to consolidating results. “If you look at the way elections are being run in most countries, it’s still the same way they used to be run 50 years ago,” says Chief Executive Officer Pere Vallès. Using Scytl’s technology, he says, a country can more easily stop fraud and announce winners “in a few hours instead of a few days.”

The company, based in Barcelona, sells software to put each step of the election process online, including poll worker training and campaign spending. To vote online, registered voters generally need to visit a government website and enter an electronic ID and password. When a voter submits and signs a digital ballot, software encrypts the data on the person’s device and provides a digital receipt.

Developing countries typically use Scytl’s technology for fraud prevention, but some officials, including those in about 1,400 U.S. counties, use it to cut costs and improve participation. “If you follow the instructions, it’s actually pretty simple,” says Carol Thompson, manager of Alaska’s Absentee and Petition Office, which hired Scytl in 2012 to create a system for Alaskans to receive and return ballots online. The state warns online voters they’re waiving their right to a secret ballot, meaning they know their votes could be exposed by a hack. But, Thompson says, “we haven’t had any issues, and we expect use to keep increasing.”

So does the company. Created in 2001 as a spinoff from a cryptography research group at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, 625-employee Scytl is profitable and has boosted its 2013 revenue of $50 million by 50 percent in each year since, Vallès says. The company has raised about $120 million in venture funding, including $40 million last year from Vulcan Capital, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s multibillion-dollar investment firm. Vulcan interim Chief Investment Officer Abhishek Agrawal says governments spend $20 billion a year on elections, making software a growth area. Vallès says he’s working toward an initial public offering on Nasdaq in 2017.

“At the moment, there’s only a couple of companies in the world that can claim any real expertise in Internet voting,” says Ian Brightwell, chief information officer for the electoral commission in the southeastern Australian state of New South Wales. Brightwell hired Scytl to improve the state’s electronic voting system for elections held in March. Lori Steele Contorer, CEO of Everyone Counts, says her software, which handles government elections as well as voting for the Oscars and Emmys, is at least as secure as Scytl’s. She says she expects the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to give Everyone Counts the first federal certification for online voting next year. The company says it’s received $40 million in funding from investors since 2006.

Many election watchdogs say software isn’t yet secure enough to be trusted, and they’re concerned that Scytl and its competitors haven’t developed a way for third parties to independently verify results. “Murphy’s Law says something is going to go wrong in pretty much every election,” says Pamela Smith, the president of election watchdog Verified Voting in Carlsbad, Calif. “Transmitting actual votes is too high-risk for using online technology.” No current online system has “the level of security and transparency needed for mainstream elections,” according to a July report prepared for the U.S. Vote Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for expanded absentee voting.

Vallès says that concerns about security are valid but that Scytl has never been hacked. “These would be things that, for a company like us, would be a lethal type of mistake,” he says. Australia’s Brightwell acknowledges that computer scientists demonstrated a “small chink in the security” of his system earlier this year, but he says there’s no evidence it was exploited. He plans to expand online voting. “If you had major electoral fraud in the electronic channel,” he says, “it would stand out like dog’s balls.”

To soothe worried governments, Vallès often first pitches more minor functions, like voter education and personnel training. He says an online voting system due for the Swiss government next year will make it easier for authorities to audit and verify vote tallies, addressing “the main concerns of the academic community.” Vallès’s next big test will be handling reporting, as Scytl did in Nigeria, for every polling place in Spain on Dec. 20. The Spanish Ministry of Interior will publish results on a public website in near-real time. “The objective isn’t fraud prevention,” Vallès says. “It’s speed.”

The bottom line: Scytl has raised about $120 million to bring more election processes online. The company is trying to expand fully online voting.

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