Access to International Talent Fuels Startup Growth
By harnessing technology, Voatz co-founder Nimit Sawhney and the Voatz team extend secure voter access to military personal, disabled citizens, U.S. citizens living overseas, and those who have historically faced challenges in voting due to logistical support difficulties.
Increasing Voter Access
Voatz began as an idea to serve three key groups that have historically faced challenges in voting due to logistical access difficulties: military personnel, U.S. citizens living overseas, and disabled citizens. “Many people can’t vote in the traditional way of physically going into the polls,” Nimit said. For example, about 5 million U.S. voters live overseas including deployed military personnel, and only seven percent vote.
Mailed ballots are also slow and cumbersome. “There are also a few million people around the country who can’t hand-mark a paper ballot due to disabilities,” he added. “They need to delegate their vote to a family member or caretaker, but then they lose their right to a secret ballot.” Using technology, Voatz allows these voters to cast their ballots in a secure, accessible, and confidential manner. Nimit said. “That’s the first evolution of why we think this is needed.”
A Hackathon Idea
Nimit and his brother stumbled upon the business idea for Voatz at a 2014 hackathon they attended in Texas. “We grew up in India, and in the 80s, we saw some unfortunate incidents when the Prime Minister was assassinated,” Nimit recalled. “Riots and people were being coerced to vote a certain way. Those childhood images prompted us to think about how we could use technology to make it safer for people who are under potential duress.”
“The thoughts in our heads were audacious, but that’s what hackathons are for,” Nimit continued. “You can dream big. We prototyped a system and then presented it. We were shocked that we won first prize.”
Nimit and his brother started exploring the business idea for Voatz by interviewing a few hundred voters, election officials, and politicians. “Almost everybody initially said not to do it, it would be too hard, and that we would not get past the first hurdles,” he said. “Then, immediately after, they’d say they wished somebody would do it. It seemed like a challenge.
Voatz ran its first beta test in 2016 at a small election for the Massachusetts Democratic Party. “We then got introduced to the state’s Republican Party as well,” Nimit said. “Both parties started to use our system; it had an early bipartisan feel, which was very encouraging.”
In 2018, Voatz offered its service for the first time to military voters in West Virginia. Since then, the company has run 82 elections, serving approximately two million voters.
“Moving forward, we have a twin-track approach,” Nimit said. “We want to keep making slow and steady progress in the U.S. market, which is a complex market because it’s county by county. It’s a long, drawn-out slog with changing laws, security and budgeting issues.
“At the same time, in some parts of the world, there’s a much greater acceptance for technology and less dogmatic views around security. We did one in South America last year where 1.7 million people voted.”
Given the current U.S. political climate, one of Voatz’s biggest challenges is assuring voter security. Voatz requires all participants to take a picture of a government-issued ID for a one-time verification and then deletes all records. “Everything gets matched with the state voter registration system,” Nimit said. “There’s no way for an ineligible person to participate. It’s a combination of security and accessibility.”
Securing International Talent
Voatz began working with Legalpad and exploring the H-1B work visa when the company wanted to hold onto a talented intern. “We are in a unique space, and the candidate had done an internship with us,” Nimit said. “She was very well-trained and competent, and it’s tough for us to find qualified engineers in our space. We wanted to sponsor a visa for her and ended up sponsoring a second student as well.”
Voatz strives to be a global company combined with the shortage of trained technology professionals fuels a need to access an international talent pool. “So many international students come to study in the U.S.,” he added. “It would be a shame if they study and then have to go back. I think it’s a loss for America because, ultimately, the global access to innovation is a fight for talent.”