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Can Blockchain Voting Protect Election Integrity?

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“The power under the Constitution will always be in the people,” wrote George Washington in 1787, showing the importance of choosing one’s representatives. There are 252 million voting-age Americans with 59% consisting of the younger crowd who are Generation X, Millennials and post-Millennials.

Electronic voting machines (EVM) were first introduced in the U.S. nearly two decades ago. Despite efforts to make voting simple and convenient, only 56% of eligible Americans go to polls, ranking America 26th out of 32 industrialized nations in voter turnout. The lesson? Advances in election technology do not address fundamental problems such as smartphone-carrying youth’s apathy towards democratic participation.

Yet the integrity of elections is key to protecting sovereignty and democracy, and digitizing the ballot is credited with speeding up electoral results and reducing costs by eliminating manual counting.

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Estonia, with its tech-forward culture, is the most successful case of electronic voting in Europe and perhaps globally. One-third (30%) of Estonians use e-voting which saves 11,000 working days per election. And the Baltic nation of 1.3 million uses blockchain-run ledgers for its legal system including legislation, judicial procedures, and police work. Estonia is expected to leverage its national ID system and blockchain infrastructure for voting in elections, although limited trials have so far been rolled out.

In the U.S., EVMs from various manufacturers have been shown vulnerable to hacking, and in some cases without a trace of tampering. A concern with e-voting is that as electoral practices become complex, these centralized systems (which can have a single failure point) can fall prey to advanced methods of fraud that switch votes towards illegitimate winning candidates and referendums. Going forward, there’s a need to design systems that only proclaim valid results.

Enter blockchain.

Distributed ledger technology (DLT) comes in various forms, either via enterprise-grade platforms such as IBM’s or Samsung’s, or via peer-to-peer, open-source such as Bitcoin network. Blockchain can reduce election fraud, and this can be most beneficial to citizens of underdeveloped markets, albeit these regions lack infrastructure.

The game-changing database fights fraud by capturing immutable, time-stamped records (votes) that give an electorate a single version of the truth. It shifts trust away from (biased) third parties and (vulnerable) voting machines to a decentralized, tamper-proof network of validating nodes who run agreed-upon protocols.

But adjustments will have to be made to fit the situation. “Voter registration still needs to happen off chain,” Vipul Goyal told Crypto Briefing. Dr. Goyal is an Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in cryptography and IT security.

Dr. Goyal added,

There has to be an authority who determines who can vote and who cannot. If the agency determines that the user is eligible to vote, the user receives a key or a token. This is similar to receiving a coin. This token can then help the user to vote exactly once.

While e-voting has not increased voter turnout, DLT can inspire greater confidence in electoral processes. Goyal’s concept proposes single-use, tokenized IDs that authenticate eligible voters. These prevent an individual from voting several times. One token, one vote.

“The mechanism used to prevent this is analogous to the mechanism used to prevent ‘double spending’ in cryptocurrencies based on blockchains,” said Goyal.

Because a hacker would have to control 51% of a blockchain network, consensus measures would be tamper-proof. And thus, votes cannot be reversed. Certain processes may indeed have to be done off-chain, such as voter registration and issuance of voter identification.

There are promising use cases but it is still in infancy.

The state of West Virginia, which has nearly 1.3 million eligible voters, this year went a step further by combining blockchain with a downloadable smartphone app. Venture-backed startup Voatz rolled out the voting tool for overseas West Virginians, especially members of the military. Under its scheme, the Boston-based company uses blockchain to track votes while the mobile app does know-your-customer (KYC) and voter registration.

“Voters register for the app by uploading a selfie and photo identification, and they must go through a multifactor authentication process to log in,” according to Slate. On its website, Voatz says administrators can use its voting tool for government, corporate, academic, local or private elections.

Goyal says distributed voting administration can protect the integrity of elections by dispersing risk across multiple nodes:

The beauty of voting based on blockchains is that it is decentralized. There is no central agency which must be trusted to conduct the elections fairly and securely. Anybody can participate and become a node in the system. The nodes will collectively ensure that the system is available throughout the duration of the election, and that the votes are counted correctly. This is similar to blockchain based cryptocurrencies: Availability doesn’t depend upon a particular trusted party, and, questions like which party has how many coins are also answered in a decentralized manner independent of the behavior of any centralized authority.

In July, the Swiss city of Zug successfully ran blockchain-based voting in a test local election. This was possible by using an existing electronic ID system that authenticates voters, who would then download an app for registration. The pilot program was administered across several computing nodes which dispersed risk. Officials focused on privacy, voting secrecy, and ensuring that voting results can be verifiable, unchangeable and comprehensible, per local report.

Similar projects are being tested in Russia and Australia.

Moreover, DLT can be applied in other areas of politics, such as immutably recording candidates’ track record on various issues such as immigration, gun rights, abortion, taxes, entitlement programs and others.

When it comes to voting, correct protocols are still crucial.

There’s a perception among technologists — and a risky one — that blockchain will inevitably be used for elections, political polling, policy surveys, organizational shareholder voting and other consensus measures. That DLT as natural evolution of databases must necessarily replace current practices. Perhaps that version of history is unavoidable.

But as electronic voting machines show, new tech most often leads to new risks and ethical questions. Think Russia, China or a Banana Republic somewhere. If a citizen lives in a jurisdiction ruled by a tyrant, would she want her voting record and political preferences immutably recorded and publicly viewable? It should be asked: Can a regime use blockchain against its people and not for them? While Estonia and Swiss authorities have respected voting privacy, other regimes may not.

There have also been initiatives in the U.S. and globally to implement mobile-based voting. But with malware attacks on the rise, designers will be tasked to create robust apps that secure elections and protect citizens.

One of America’s Founding Fathers, Samuel Adams, said that voting is a solemn duty. “Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote … that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.”

 

The author holds BTC which is mentioned in this article.

 

DISCLOSURE

Authors at Crypto Briefing are invested in cryptocurrencies. The author of this post may be invested in digital assets mentioned here.

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