VotifyNow, Ask Questions Later? 🤔

It’s just like us at the Institute to be giddy about any new App or digital service to advance the ease, convenience, and improved transparency of elections and their administration. So, when we heard about VotifyNow, I was thrilled to be tasked with learning more about it and writing a review. Well, maybe… You decide, but what follows is a trip down the rabbit-hole of VotifyNow.

VotifyNow is a utility App (on Google Play and the Apple App Store). Purportedly designed to be a crowdsourcing App to report election irregularities such as unattended mail ballot drop boxes, equipment issues at polling places, etc.

On the surface, VotifyNow appears to be an App aimed at compiling small, but significant reports of problems during the early voting and election day periods.

A description of VotifyNow, directly from an interview that App developer John Viera gave to OneAmerica News with Neil McCabe offers as follows:

MCCABE: “Johnny, how could a regular voter use the VotifyNow app to report what they think is a case of election fraud in real time?”

VIEIRA: “Download the App, they will get a menu item asking them what type of incident they’re seeing, a mail-in ballot issue, a problem with the polling location. On the more nefarious incidents, we will archive and store those to keep chain of custody, we will share those with multiple parties, we don’t share with any one entity, it might be a sheriff or it might be a campaign manager. We share with multiple parties so that there’s no funny business.” 

From OneAmericaNews with Neil McCabe

VotifyNow might have been designed with the best of intentions and some positive aspects, but there are serious red flags that outweigh the potential benefits. Let’s have a closer look, because in this App, there is good, bad, and some ugly.

On the Positive Side…

VotifyNow is clearly dedicated to user experience, and the how-to video explanations are minimalist and well done. Kudos to the user-experience (UX) designer; this is a nice feature. There seem to be some App features that exist to provide nonpartisan voter information, as well as helpful links to become a poll worker. To be brutally honest, most voters would be better off going to their local elections official website to get current information. It is exceedingly difficult to maintain an App with current information from thousands of jurisdictions. Looking at it from a marketing perspective, it seems that these voter-information features exist mostly to incentivize multi-state voter adoption, and to provide an air of nonpartisan impartiality. 

Where VotifyNow Becomes Problematic…

VotifyNow encourages users to take pictures of alleged suspicious activity inside and outside of polling places, and anonymously upload video/photos, sending them to, as yet, unknown, site administrators. Subsequently, the images or video are forwarded, not to the local election office, but to law enforcement and/or the local GOP precinct chair (not both parties’ precinct chairs). Wait; what? If VotifyNow truly wishes to claim to be nonpartisan, then all local party precinct chairs should be looped in. And unlike local or state election officials, sheriff’s deputies and precinct committee people are not specifically trained or equipped to address urgent technical problems involving voting equipment. Why would this incredibly important data not be shared with local election officials? It’s literally their job to resolve many of the issues voters would be reporting.  

Just because something looks suspicious in a video clip does not automatically mean something improper or illegal actually occurred. There is already a wide-spread problem of false accusations and potential voter intimidation tactics. Another concern is the rising incidence of intimidation and violence directed towards poll workers and election officials. After all, now exceedingly convincing deep-fakes exist, as do video clips from other elections taken out of context and stitched together. There are relatively few methods of independent verification, and the verification methods used by VotifyNow have not yet been disclosed

And not to bury the lede here, but in many jurisdictions, photography inside a polling place is illegal. Now IANAL, but violating one law, in order to allege another law was violated, tends to leave the one who violated the former with a criminal record, and the latter as inadmissible evidence in a court of law. VotifyNow likely needs a much stronger disclaimer on their site, and at least one Site Admin or moderator who has working knowledge of state and local election laws, and another Admin well versed in polling place operations and who is not allied with any political party or candidate to evaluate reports of irregularities objectively. “Community Notes” or polite but firm comment moderation seems like a capital idea for future versions of the App.

The VotifyNow Ugly…

Careless, but potentially serious oversights make the App look like quick work of a weekend-coder. For example, it appears that standard communication security isn’t applied in all cases. Then there is the App’s privacy policy and data retention disclosures. For one, the App interface clearly instructs users to upload information, and use geolocation to at least some extent, but the App’s profile and store information do not match, and the data collection policy listed on App Store, at last check, was literally full of “Lorem ipsum” and generic description. To add to the privacy policy assertion issues, the developer’s website, as of last check, is flagged as “potentially malicious,” at least when using certain web browsers. Violations of App store policies can, in fact, result in the App being removed from the store.

The carelessness also touches on the lack of user authentication. It looks like the back-end’s API can be used by anyone, including Bots that can spam the system with entirely made up “spurious events” without even needing misguided or mendacious real people snapping photos. Oh, and remember, we now have easy tools to create convincing deep-fakes!

The kicker is the anonymity and lack of accountability.  Not that we want to build an App like this; however, if we did, it would:

  • Utilize a standard user-account setup with multi-factor authentication; 
  • Employ administrative functions to aid in verifying user accounts (otherwise it is easy for bots to spam);
  • Create a ticketing system that is able to tag, flag, and triage every report with a user account; 
  • Incorporate a public bulletin board list user/time/place of report (without the photo or details) so people are accountable for their reporting; 
  • Incorporate administrative functions to review reports and add metadata; 
  • Ensure that the bulletin board is updated with the administrator’s reviews in a timely fashion; and
  • Retain all images and full data of reports in private secure cloud storage accessible only by administrators and require multi-factor authentication for authorized access.

Sadly, VotifyNow fails to implement any of these capabilities. Yet, similar to fractal programming or ballots printed with dozens of security features, the intentions behind VotifyNow are almost certainly noble. There are plenty of issues surrounding election integrity and security that need to be addressed and mitigated, particularly heading into the 2024 election cycle. Yet again, we have discovered a solution seemingly in search of a problem, and sadly, one that won’t fix the underlying issue plaguing elections: lack of transparency where it matters most

It’s ironic that an innovative app concept intended to foster radical election transparency falls short when it comes to transparency on the back-end and content moderation. Provided that the concerns about accountability, accurate evaluation of reports, and back-end transparency are addressed, VotifyNow has considerable potential to improve relevant data collection in near real-time for the election administration, election integrity, and election security worlds.

In the interest of our shared goal of election transparency, we would welcome the opportunity to engage in a future dialogue with VotifyNow’s developer. 

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