Here’s a sobering fact that was likely repeated often after the 2016 presidential election: the United States is still way behind when it comes to voter turnout. A report by Pew Research Center last year found that the U.S. actually trails most developed countries in this respect, with about 55.7 percent of the U.S. voting-age population having cast a vote in an election that resulted in celebrity TV star Donald Trump becoming president.
It’s an issue that’s very personal to Nimit Sawhney, who witnessed coercion in elections overseas before moving to the U.S. Now he’s using that desire to help more people participate in democracy to build technology he hopes will bring more trust and accessibility to elections.
To help him achieve that goal, Sawhney’s voting software startup, Voatz, has raised a $2.2 million seed round led by Medici Ventures, a subsidiary of Overstock.com focused on blockchain investments. The round, which was announced on Monday, included participation from Urban Innovation Fund and early HubSpot investor Joe Caruso.
Voatz is a mobile-focused software platform that allows anyone to participate in an election with their smartphone or tablet, getting rid of the need for paper ballots or clunky hardware. The platform has already shown promise after Tufts University used it last fall for its student senate election and brought in a greater turnout of first-time voters than in 2015 and 2014.
“If you have a compatible smartphone and are willing to go through the pre-verification process, then you can have the convenience of voting remotely,” Sawhney, CEO and co-founder of Voatz, said. “That’s a big plus in terms of improving participation, especially among the demographics that haven’t participated a lot.”
Sawhney said that while the company initially focused on supporting elections at colleges and universities, Voatz has since expanded to labor unions, nonprofits, political parties and town governments. For major political parties, Voatz has provided its voting platform for state conventions, committee meetings and opinion polling, among other things. But the company is clearly looking at government elections for where it can really shine.
Voatz is currently in discussions with several towns in Massachusetts to provide its voting software for their town meetings, where residents have direct input on budget and policy matters, Sawhney said. On its website, the company is accepting pre-applications for voting in a local jurisdiction, for which Voatz requires government-issued photo identification.
Aside from accessibility, what could make Voatz stand out is its use of blockchain, the decentralized ledger technology that serves as the backbone of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Because each record in the blockchain is immutable and open for anyone to view, this will allow anyone to audit the results of an election, Sawhney said. These open records do not contain any identifying information. The software also uses biometrics.
The company, which went through Techstars Boston and MassChallenge last year, plans to use the funding to expand business development in the U.S. and internationally and invest in the development on new features. Sawhney said the company is also working on getting certified by the Election Assistance Commission, which will enable Voatz to make larger deployers.