5 Things to Know About Blockchain Voting
Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of any democracy. But in recent years, the integrity of the electoral process itself has been called into question.
People across the ideological spectrum are concerned about the political, technological, and social issues around voting: Foreign interference in elections, voter access issues, demonstrably insecure voting machines, and voter fraud. While we may disagree on the details, all of us want secure elections with reliable results.
Blockchain technology has been proposed as a solution to the challenges of modern voting—but many people are unsure about what this would mean in practice.
Here are 5 things you should know about blockchain voting:
Blockchain =/= Bitcoin =/= Cryptocurrency
When most people hear the word “blockchain”, they immediately think of Bitcoin, or maybe of cryptocurrency in general.
But blockchain is most accurately and simply defined as a decentralized system of records, linked and verified using cryptography. In other words, it’s not, fundamentally, a financial technology, but rather a cryptographic technology—and one with many potential applications.
Cryptocurrency is just one possible use case for blockchain technology, and Bitcoin itself is only one particular type of cryptocurrency. But the potential applications of blockchain go far beyond this, and include decentralized software applications (DApps), censorship-resistant publishing platforms, secure medical record storage, and yes, voting.
The power of distributed ledgers
The great advantage of blockchains is that they are decentralized. The records on a public blockchain aren’t held by any one person or organization, but are instead distributed across all the nodes of a blockchain network. Each node has a complete copy of the blockchain, which is continually updated, and changes on the blockchain are verified mathematically by the aggregate computing power of the network’s nodes.
This makes blockchains extremely tamper-resistant, since there is no centralized store of data that a bad actor could attack; no “official” copy of the blockchain held by a company or authority that could be altered for nefarious ends; no single server or data center that could crash or fail. For these reasons, blockchain technology could be especially useful for things like financial transactions, contracts, or voting.
Not all blockchains are created equal
Public blockchains like the ones which support Bitcoin and Ethereum have earned a somewhat negative reputation due to the fact that they allow for completely anonymous financial transactions. This has made them popular with cybercriminals, who attempt to use ransomware to extort money from their targets in the form of cryptocurrency. And cryptocurrencies are also used extensively on the dark web, where even more deplorable criminals operate.
This may leave some with the impression that blockchain technology is far too anarchistic for use in elections. But it’s important to recognize that not all blockchains represent the kind of “Wild West” found in the world of cryptocurrency. There are also private, or “permissioned” blockchains. These require an administrative body to determine who can access the blockchain network—meaning that both the verifying nodes and the users on a blockchain could be authenticated.
In the case of elections, such a body might be a local board of elections. The authentication of voters could entail verifying identities and voter registration status with photo IDs and biometric tools like smartphone fingerprint scanners or Face ID.
Blockchain nodes on such a network could still be distributed—but the total number and location of nodes would be under the control of a governing body. Voter anonymity could also be preserved under a permissioned blockchain voting system.
While some of the benefits of a fully public blockchain would be lost, many would remain—while providing citizens with the assurance that the process would be properly regulated and protected from abuse. In other words, blockchain technology could be used to approximate our current election system, but with far greater security and resistance to tampering than electronic voting machines can offer.
It’s still controversial
Despite the promise of blockchain technology as a way of improving election security, not everyone is convinced that it’s the way to go.
Some observers cite security concerns around the technologies that would be used to support blockchain elections: Namely, the government or third-party servers functioning as blockchain nodes and the mobile devices used by voters to cast their ballots. They point out that these are potentially hackable, and thus open the door to election interference by foreign governments and intelligence agencies. Others are skeptical about the role of our own government agencies in the process, and wonder whether or not blockchain voting could lead to voter suppression or compromise voter anonymity.
However, supporters of blockchain voting point out that many of these issues are also problems with our current system of balloting—and that blockchain elections, while not foolproof, would likely be an improvement over what we have now. Perhaps for these reasons, there is growing support for blockchain voting in many quarters. This even includes some fairly high-profile political figures, with Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang going so far as to make the modernization of voting through blockchain technology an official policy point for his campaign.
It’s already happening
While the debate over blockchain voting continues, the blockchain voting technologies developed by several private companies have already been used in several elections.
The Boston-based company Voatz has successfully conducted pilot mobile voting in state and municipal elections, both in West Virginia and Denver.
Votem, a Cleveland, Ohio startup, managed balloting for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions using their blockchain-based platform (after the previous year’s online voting had been marred by allegations of hacking and tampering). They have also been involved with elections in Montana and Washington, D.C.
Smartmatic, which was founded in Florida but is now headquartered in the UK, used blockchain tech in the last Utah Republican Presidential Caucus—with the vast majority of users rating the experience as positive—as well as in a regional referendum in Norway, where they were able to achieve 85% voter participation.
There are certainly many issues around blockchain voting that need to be worked out, and wide-scale implementation is still a ways off.
But the tech companies behind blockchain voting platforms are convinced that they’ve found the key to open, free, and secure elections—and that these first few trials are only the beginning. We’ll chat with one of these companies in our next SecureMac Interview—so keep an eye on this blog if you’d like to learn more.