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University of Lethbridge students create award-winning virtual voting platform

Click to play video: 'University of Lethbridge students create award-winning virtual voting platform' University of Lethbridge students create award-winning virtual voting platform
Voting as we now know it may undergo a massive shift one day and a team of University of Lethbridge students could be behind that shift. The team is bringing virtual voting to the forefront of political engagement with their new award-winning online platform. Taz Dhaliwal has the story – Sep 29, 2020

A team of University of Lethbridge students hopes to change what the voting process in Canada looks like by bringing virtual voting to the forefront of political engagement with its online platform called the Blockchain Smart Voting System.

“I was in this blockchain hackathon at the time back in the spring of 2019, and I was hanging out with my roommate, Divine [Okonkwo], who is now our freelance graphic designer, and we were talking about elections and he’s like, ‘I don’t really trust elections where I come from in Africa. They use flimsy pieces of paper. I don’t trust it at all.’ To which I said, ‘They do the same thing here in Canada but with fancier pieces of paper,'” said Peter Hurd-Watler, the CEO of Veras Technologies INC., the company that designed the virtual voting system, and a fourth-year student in the Dhillon School of Business at the U of L.

The group began working on its idea in May 2019.

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“Hurd-Watler did an applied study course over the summer focusing on the value of blockchain in reducing vulnerabilities in Alberta’s current election system,” read a release from the U of L.

“By summer 2020, with support of the U of L’s agility program, they were ready to test the concept at the 150 StartUps’ Innovation Rodeo student pitch competition. It won both the regional and final championships — as well as $10,000 and the opportunity for Hurd-Watler to go to Draper University in Silicon Valley in June 2021 for a five-week entrepreneurial accelerator program.”

Read more: B.C. election 2020: How to vote during a pandemic

Hurd-Watler, CEO of the Calgary-based company, said the virtual voting system works by people creating blockchain identity profiles and it allows them to cast a ballot from anywhere in the world.

Creators of the platform said blockchain has a security mechanism to ward off hackers online and decreases the chances of manual manipulation.

“It’s actually distributed in different servers, so if one hacker changes anything, it will signal other servers to say something has changed. This actually enhances security,” said Ismail Lawal, software engineer with Veras.

In the times of COVID-19, Hurd-Watler said virtual voting reduces the need for large gatherings and lines by serving as a supplementary option to in-person voting.

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He believes that if people can do banking securely through smartphones, then they can vote online using safe and trusted technology too.

Hurd-Watler said if the Veras platform is adopted, then it could potentially blow open the political process, creating easier access for anyone wishing to participate in their region.

He added that online voting can also help provide access to marginalized people.

“Especially for the Indigenous and handicapped, they may not be able to access polling stations,” Hurd-Watler said.

“Some Indigenous people we interviewed said they had to drive over 30 minutes one way just to access a polling station.”

Hurd-Watler said his group conducted dozens of “problem discovery interviews” with Alberta’s MLAs, councillors, mayors and constituents over the phone to find out more about roadblocks they faced when it comes to garnering political engagement.

Through their research, they found the “inefficiency” of paper, polling stations and staff impacted provincial spending and voter turnout due to accessibility issues.

Hurd-Watler is part of the youth demographic, ages 18 to 24, which only made up seven per cent of voter turnout in the last Alberta election — something Veras hopes to change in the next election.

He said this novel technology could help increase youth voter turnout since many youths are avid users of technology and may prefer the convenience of it as opposed to in-person voting.

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Read more: For the 1st time, millennial voters will make up the biggest voting bloc in a federal election

Although, one political science professor says enticing large numbers of youth to vote can be a tough feat.

“There’s been lots of outreach to make things as simple as possible, as easy as possible: advance polling, polling on secondary campuses to increase that turnout, and for the most part, those efforts have failed,” said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

Bratt noted there can also be issues with internet connection in some rural communities.

In addition, he pointed out that youth voters are not the only ones who can be avid users of online technology; people of all ages nowadays can be well-equipped to use virtual platforms.

On the matter of increasing political engagement and voter turnout, Bratt noted the root of the issue must be addressed, which relates to ensuring people feel invested in the political process and understand the personal stake they have in voting come election time.

The team said it’s hoping to conduct a pilot project with a municipality in Alberta before the end of the year, adding it is optimistic the product can help increase voter turnout all across the board.

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