(Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers used a mobile phone app over the last two weeks to remotely cast votes for the first time, according to technologists and some involved in the process, embracing technology to facilitate an internal party leadership contest.
The development marks a shift in how Congress is adapting to the internet, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Use of the app, called Markup ERVS, had not been publicly disclosed before Friday. (ERVS stands for “Electronic Remote Voting System.”)
A total of 230 Democrats in the House of Representatives logged into Markup on their government-provided iPhones to cast 11 votes over several days for a variety of contested leadership positions, including the assistant speaker, the chairs of major committees and the leadership of the House campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Markup spokesperson Colby Redmond.
The House Democrats also chose their caucus chair through the app, which transfers data to staff in Washington.
Earlier this year, the House changed its procedures for voting on legislation by the full chamber. It allowed members, for the first time, to communicate their votes to colleagues in Washington, who then cast those votes for them in person.
So far, only Democrats have adopted the Markup technology. Republicans have expressed concerns about virtual voting, saying it sets a bad precedent.
U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, who leads the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement that the Markup app allowed Democrats “to safely recreate the traditions of the House Democratic Caucus’ organizational meetings, including Members’ ability to vote by secret ballot.”
The use of Markup for party leadership races illustrates an early but limited scenario, where a small number of devices and ballots decided the result within a closed system, said Redmond.
The House’s Information Resources office reviewed the software’s security and then installed it on lawmakers’ phones ahead of the contests, a House Information Resources spokesperson confirmed.
Markup’s development was accelerated in March by the advent of the coronavirus. The virus continues to affect lawmakers’ ability to travel to Washington to cast votes and meet with colleagues, making the app’s launch timely.
While the concept of internet-based mobile phone voting has been discussed in the civic technology industry for several years, cybersecurity experts have generally warned against its widespread deployment due to the possibility of cyberattacks.
As a sign of the app’s security, Redmond said, Markup ERVS, a product of Washington-based government tech startup Markup LLC, was built in partnership with Microsoft Corp.
Markup borrows code from Microsoft’s ElectionGuard technology, said Redmond. That offers “a way of checking election results are accurate, and that votes have not been altered,” Microsoft’s website says.
The votes themselves are also encrypted in transit, Redmond said.
“This was a great example of how ElectionGuard can be used in innovative ways to ensure a secure and verifiable voting process,” Microsoft Vice President Tom Burt wrote in a blog post published Friday.
(Reporting by Christopher Bing; Editing by Tom Brown and Jonathan Oatis)