Transparent election results
October 28, 2016
For Adam Ernest (MKTG ’04), the 2016 presidential election will be an important test of his company’s software.
Follow My Vote, the nonpartisan public benefit corporation Ernest founded and where he serves as CEO, develops open-source blockchain voting software that supports early voting from mobile devices and allows voters to independently audit the ballot box, providing immediate transparency into election results.
In November, Follow My Vote will conduct a mock, parallel election to showcase the software, including its patent-pending anonymous process for validating a voter’s identity and issuing a ballot.
Ernest voted for the first time in the 2000 presidential election, the year he turned 18. That was, of course, the year of the hanging chad, of Bush v. Gore.
“I’d been waiting to vote,” Ernest says. “And then my very first election, the whole thing gets called into question. When they stopped the recount in Florida, it was really troubling. There was no way to tell if the person who got the most votes really won.”
That disconcerting introduction to voting stuck with him through his college years at Southern Illinois University and Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business, and into the early years of his business career. “I realized that elections are happening in a black box,” Ernest says. “There’s no way for a citizen to know if their vote was counted.”
Follow My Vote, which Ernest launched on July 4, 2012, began as an effort to confront a different civic problem: informing citizens about how their representatives vote on important issues.
“The idea was that you could enter in your zip code and the app would show you who your senators and representative are and display their voting record,” Ernest says. “You could quickly see whether officials are representing you when they’re in Washington. It would be an accountability measure.”
But not long after he returned to Blacksburg to focus full time on his business, based in Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center, he learned about blockchain technology. That’s the database system used to secure the bitcoin protocol. He realized that this technology could be used to build an end-to-end verifiable system for elections that could preserve voter anonymity while providing transparency.
Traditional electronic voting machines are subject to hacking and often don’t leave any kind of paper trail that can be checked. Going back to paper ballots isn’t much better, Ernest says. “Paper ballot systems aren’t scalable, verifiable, or transparent,” he says. “Ultimately, I realized that if you introduce new technology into the mix, you can solve all of those problems. I understood that blockchain technology was the key to that.”
Blockchain technology uses redundant databases across peer-to-peer networks. The duplicate databases are checked whenever a record is added to ensure the integrity of the database.
“We pivoted immediately,” he says. “We announced the company’s new direction on July 4, 2014.”
Follow My Vote’s process gives voters a voting key that will allow them to check their own vote in the database to ensure it was properly recorded. “You can look up your vote using your voting key to verify that your vote was counted,” Ernest says. “And you can see how everyone else voted, without identifying information. The system allows anonymous votes with individual verification.”
The parallel election is a proving ground, Ernest says. “After the parallel election, I’ll consider us open for business,” he says. As the software is open source, Ernest believes most of the company’s revenue will come from consulting.
Follow My Vote, which works closely with the Free and Equal Elections Foundation, wants to “help countries and organizations build transparent and verifiable voting systems,” Ernest says. “We envision ourselves as a company of technology experts. Where we see making the bulk of our money is consulting.”
Christina Tobin, chair and founder of the Free and Equal Elections Foundation, praised Ernest’s dedication to improving the election process. “He’s changed his life, his entire career, to better our elections,” she says. “I commend him for taking a leading role.”
A hokie through and through
Follow My Vote founder Adam Ernest can tell you the exact moment he became a Hokie.
The son of an Air Force intelligence officer, Ernest earned his first college credits from the University of Maryland in classes offered on a military base in Stuttgart, Germany, where his family had lived for three years.
He transferred to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where a marketing class struck a deep chord.
“I loved marketing,” Ernest says. “I got really excited. I love the psychology of it. I’m very interested in people and how they work, and how their brains work. I was interested in power structures and the ways of the world, not just what you can see, but what’s behind the scenes.”
He applied to and was accepted at several business schools. He and his parents started their tour of the prospective schools at Virginia Tech. “I took one step out on the Drillfield and did a 360,” he says. “I saw all the Hokie Stone. It was a big rush. It just felt like I was home. I told my parents I didn’t need to go anywhere else. That’s when I became a Hokie.”
Ernest says he was destined to be an entrepreneur. “I was always very interested in being a business person, an entrepreneur,” he says. “I was in Sam’s Club one day with my mom and saw that you could buy boxes of candy bars at a huge discount. I was like, ‘Boom!’ I asked Mom if she could buy me a box and let me pay her back. I sold candy bars out of my backpack at school. They used to call me the Candy Man.”
Two things stand out from his time at Pamplin: the professors and Delta Sigma Pi, a co-ed professional business fraternity. “I was the kind of kid who really enjoyed being lectured,” Ernest says. “I didn’t like to get sick. I didn’t like to miss class. Pamplin did a good job of recruiting good professors who really challenged the students.”
Delta Sigma Pi helped Ernest land his first job. Later, the fraternity would help him make his first hire for Follow My Vote. At an etiquette dinner held by the fraternity and sponsored by Enterprise, Ernest was offered a job by the company rep sitting at his table. He worked for Enterprise for a couple of years, moving to Florida along the way, but as he was preparing to interview for a branch management position, he realized that his career had veered off course.
He quit his job and eventually got involved with MediaWhiz, a full-service internet marketing company. He helped build that company, then decided to branch out on his own and launched Follow My Vote.
Returning to Blacksburg, he held a professional event with Delta Sigma Pi and met fellow Hokie Will Long (MKTG ’14), who would become his marketing manager.
“I just fell in love with the entire idea of Follow My Vote,” Long says. “I was really blown away and knew this was something I’d like to get involved in.”