Blockchain Voting and our Trust in the Ballot
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
After four days of uncertainty, the results of the 2020 US election were called by the major newspaper as a win for the Democrats. Over the coming weeks, amid calls of election stealing, lawsuits, and recounts, reflections will be made over an electoral system that could either be viewed as one which is far too vulnerable to accusations of fraud or, conversely, one which has proved robust enough to withstand some of the most aggressive and sustained attacks on its integrity ever seen in the course of its history.
While it appears that the deserved winner - with the most Electoral College votes - has triumphed, the question marks left over almost every aspect of the voting process - from the reliability of the postal service to the access given to vote watchers - will need to be addressed. It is time for the use of blockchain technology for voting to become a central part of the conversation.
If there was a coherent strain in the sitting President's stream of accusations and threats of legal action it would be trust; in democratic institutions and technology, in the media, in the postal system, in his fellow Americans. The key concerns, apparently, about mail-in voting in particular are about potential tampering and individuals sending more than one ballot. At this time, there is no real evidence that lack of trust in the vote counting system is warranted but this doesn't make the concerns less real for a large number of Americans. What if at least one of these issues can be mitigated?
What is Blockchain voting?
Blockchain in general allows data to be transferred and recorded reliably using a decentralized and distributed network of servers. The records are called blocks and are linked together with cryptography technology. The interlinking or 'chain' is essential as a single record can't be edited without impacting the whole. It is essentially impossible to modify blockchain records without detection because a single piece of the chain doesn't abide in a single location; the data is distributed over the whole system. Blockchain is not even particularly new in our ever-changing digital world; peer-to-peer file sharing (remember BitTorrent?) has been around for more than a decade.
Blockchain Voting is peer-to-peer technology that allows encryption and an electronic ledger to enable private and secure registration information and ballots to be transmitted over the internet. A blockchain-based mobile app is already used by members of the US military living overseas to cast absentee ballots using a smart phone. This app has a unique biometric safeguard system as well as facial recognition and thumb print security. Note that blockchain voting is different to standard digital or electronic voting which is already used in many countries.
Could Blockchain replace postal voting?
Mail-in voting was a major feature of the 2020 US election, partly because of the coronavirus pandemic, and partly due to some concern that some voters may not be able to access polling centers on the day of the election. In fact, it is estimated there were double the postal votes cast in 2020 compared to either 2016 or 2012. The sheer numbers, alongside a severely underfunded voting infrastructure, meant there was always going to be a bottleneck when it came to counting the votes. While delays caused by this bottleneck would ordinarily be frustrating, under the current circumstances it gave rise to rather more worrying events. Crowds gathered at polling stations, a few even carrying firearms, lawyers were dispatched and Republican representatives demanded entry and a closer proximity to vote counters. Under such conditions, the whole system was put under more pressure and more scrutiny than ever before.
So, is it time to replace a system with so many possibilities for human error? Ballots can be lost, defaced, or tampered with; many were also rejected based on non-identical signatures. What is needed is a mutable, transparent, and secure system which could eliminate these errors and subsequent accusations of fraud, and protect the democratic process.
If you have any knowledge of blockchain, you may recognize the terms mutable, transparent, and secure as central tents of this technology. In securing transactions of cryptocurrency, blockchain has succeeded in eliminating financial fraud. And so, as its proponents argue, it could do the same for voting. In particular, Blockchain could provide an effective alternative to mail-in voting and prevent delays like the ones we have seen in this election.
Is Blockchain really secure?
A blockchain system could provide a safe and secure system for voting by validating voters, keeping ballots secret, and letting each voter verify their vote was tallied. In practice it still may create as many problems than it solves.
Detractors of blockchain voting maintain that the system is too easily hackable, pointing to the recent Russian vote to amend the constitution. The online vote powered by BItfury blockchain technology suffered a node attack according to Russian TASS state media sources. It wasn’t the only issue with the system; reports showed that voting was inaccessible for the first few hours and hackers were able to show how it was possible to vote twice.
Cases like these, alongside the lack of knowledge about blockchain among the general population, could easily inflate the perceived risk, whether justified or not. Technology is fallible, after all, and a data leak scenario has many real world examples.
Another issue to be solved is how to simultaneously provide security to voters while also verifying their identity to ensure they are eligible to vote. Blockchain for financial transactions is based on user data being anonymous, which is what allows a decentralised system, whereas the opposite is true of voting. Some of the user data may still need to be centralized so that it can be cross-referenced against a database of the electorate. Once you do this, you lose the security benefits of decentralization! When money, data or votes are concentrated in a single place, that place is vulnerable to diminishing trust, particularly when there is political will to chip away at that trust.
Further, Blockchains such as Bitcoin and Etherium are still not necessarily scalable enough to handle tens of millions of people voting, all at once.
Defenders of Blockchain voting point to the use of individualised tokens to mitigate identity concerns, and a new generation of protocols are offering secure and scalable infrastructure that could handle both single time voting events and whole economies. Some of these will even be able to aggregate results (ie. count and deliver vote outcomes) without the need for a centralised infrastructure solution.
The middle way
Opinions are split between those who see blockchain as the ultimate future of voting and those who maintain the technology is not ready yet. However, there may be a third way which allows a gradual introduction of the technology for specific cases. Indeed, in the US at least, a state-by-state approach would be the likely scenario in the case of any such changes to the voting system, with states largely autonomous in this. In fact, USPS, the US postal system, has already patented their own Blockchain system, suggesting that they may be moving towards replacing mail-in voting already. A random conspiracy theory (debunked) stumbled upon recently suggested that mail-in ballots were already "tagged" by blockchain and so hundreds of thousands of votes would soon be shown to be fraudulent.
Blockchain voting can eliminate doubts about whether or not the person whose name is on the ballot actually cast the vote, and whether or not the ballot was tampered with after it was sent. In fact, Blockchain was employed to resolve an issue of vote tampering in the Guatemalan elections. In Guatemala, votes are cast on paper ballots and carbon copies are taken, creating a total of four copies of each vote. The volume of paper records, rather than creating more security, led to chaos, miscounts, fraud and - sometimes more damaging - accusations of fraud. Blockchain technology stepped in to help. Guatemala is a country where not everyone has access to a smartphone so replacing in-person voting wasn’t an option.
The solution was to take a random number of ballots and a digital record which was then uploaded onto a platform called #Fiscal_Digital. These records are stored securely in a decentralized location using blockchain technology and made publicly available. Therefore, if ballots are manipulated at any point between being cast and counted or if any accusations of fraud arise, this can quickly be verified by consulting the record. The initiative was set up by a non-profit organization and has seen very satisfactory results so far.
As we've discussed, Blockchain voting is being used already across the United States to collect ballots from military personnel based overseas. However, it is not in widespread enough use to have arisen as an issue of contention, and it remains to be seen whether it would stand up to intense scrutiny, as with the case of mail-in voting, if it came to it.
One of the advantages of blockchain voting is that it doesn’t require any additional legal framework, hence how it has been implemented without much fanfare. However, there is still the issue of voter identity which hasn’t needed to be addressed so far. Military personnel can easily vote using their military ID but the rest of the public don’t have such a simple form of digitally identifying themselves. This would not be complicated to implement more widely but it could still cm up against the damaging trifecta of distrust, conspiracy theory and misinformation.
The benefits of a system like the one used by the military - which allows them to vote via their mobile - are evident, and never more so than in the midst of a pandemic. For the elderly and the vulnerable, leaving the house could be a matter of life and death, whilst for others with mobility issues, getting out to vote has always been an issue. By replacing the less-than-perfect mail-in system, you could increase turnout, reduce delays, and minimize the potential for fraud.
Whether this really could have avoided the issues raised in the 2020 election is debatable. Legal challenges so far appear to be largely without real evidence and State-based judicial inquiries have already thrown out a couple of cases. In fact, in spite of nearly a week of panicked hand-wringing, it appears that the current system has proven to be remarkably robust.
Should we hand over our electoral process to technology?
Existing voting systems do leave room for suspicion:
mail-in votes can be altered or stolen
Election officials might count inaccurately; and
Electronic voting machines are hackable
But here is no guarantee that a system such as Blockchain could be water-tight enough to fully resolve all of these issues in any case, and a technology which is still not widely understood could easily give rise to a slew of new conspiracy theories.
Whether or not blockchain does eventually prove itself able to fix the fallibility of the current voting system, we should also take the time to consider novel and unforeseen consequences of handing over a manual process into the hands of technology. In our rush to fix the problems of human error, we can sometimes underestimate the benefits of the human touch.
In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari imagines a future where we allow social media to cast votes for us. A future where Data is king and its worshippers believe that...
...given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves. Once that happens, humans will lose their authority, and humanist practices such as democratic elections will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.
Such a future is not beyond the grasp of our imagination. We already allow Facebook to tell us which social groups we should join, Twitter to tell us what news stories to read, and Netflix to tell us what to watch. As we become more comfortable handing decision-making over to Big Tech, giving it our vote doesn’t seem to be such a stretch. We may be able to envision a future whereby we don’t need to read the policies of each candidate but instead ask our AI to do the work for us, and then choose the candidate which best aligns to our true values (based on likes, shares, etc).
It is not difficult to see the advantages of such a system; disinformation and fake news could no longer be used to sway the electorate and people would not be encouraged to vote against their own interests. If it meant an end to the aggressive and contentious political landscape of recent years, could we not be persuaded?
While blockchain technology being used to fix an electoral system’s perceived flaws does not necessarily lead to handing over our voting rights to Facebook, it could be an important first step towards convincing people of its benefits. Proponents of decentralization see one of its major benefits as a move away from Big Tech yet Facebook has already set up a blockchain unit within the company showing its intention to make sure it is not excluded from the party.
So we must remain vigilant. Human error is inevitable but also manageable within a system which has functioned throughout human history, while the potential consequences of blockchain are so far unknowable. Although the kind of dystopian future where algorithms decide elections may seem far away, what we have seen in the recent US elections suggests that a demand for radical change may soon be upon us, and new solutions will need to be considered.