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Blockchain Voting Could Save Democracy

Blockchain could improve voting security. So why are governments resisting adoption?

Blockchain voting could improve democracy.
Blockchain voting could improve democracy.

Voting security had become a significant issue in many countries. Some have argued blockchain voting systems could solve election security problems and reinvigorate democratic governance. This article explores the problems with traditional voting methods and some proposals for blockchain voting. It suggests the best, most realistic implementation method for blockchain voting. The article concludes by addressing challenges to the widespread adoption of blockchain voting methods. In particular, why some governments might not be in any hurry to embrace the change.

Democracy Threatened by Limits of Current Voting Systems

Democracy is a system of governance whereby those who are governed participate in that process, typically through elected representatives. For democracy to function, fair and secure voting methods must be in place. While traditional paper-based ballot voting is accessible and inexpensive, it has two significant problems:

  1. It is not scalable. Paper-based voting works well for smaller local elections. However, using the method on a large scale leads to significant problems with accuracy.
  2. Increasingly, paper-based voting is combined with electronic voting machines, which are much less secure multiple security vulnerabilities and make election manipulation easier.

Some argue that blockchain technology can solve these problems. First, because it is massively scalable, and second because it is tamper-proof. Is it true? Could blockchain technology offer a safe and reliable voting method suited to the scale of modern nations?

The Engineering Behind Blockchain Voting

To understand blockchain voting requires understanding how the blockchain works. While the hype surrounding Bitcoin seems to have waned, governments and businesses are becoming more interested in its underlying technology: the blockchain.

At its core, the blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a secure and ever-growing ledger of records (usually transactions) known as blocks: “picture a spreadsheet that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. Then imagine that this network regularly updates this spreadsheet and you have a basic understanding of the blockchain.”

A network of nodes manages this database. The nodes are computers that agree to check the validity of transactions. Once a node validates a transaction, it adds it to a chronological group known as a block. It then adds the block to the blockchain. Blocks are added to the database one after the other, hence the name blockchain. Data on the network is public. Anyone can access and check it. Moreover, the database can store any type of data, cryptocurrency exchanges, health records, land titles, or votes.

The Blockchain is Transparent and Incorruptible

To understand why the blockchain is tamper-proof with requires going a bit deeper into the technology. A node marks the first block with a hash function when it adds to the chain. A node also marks the second block with a hash function, but this one contains part of the first block’s hash function. Therefore, if the node changes any of the database transactions in the previous blocks, the hash function of that block is also changed. When the node adds the altered block to the blockchain, all other nodes can see its hash function is incorrect (and that a change must have been made on previous blocks) and the update will be rejected (for more detail on this process see here).

This fundamental aspect of blockchain is what makes the technology tamper-proof and secure. Thus, Blockchain technology allows for transparent and incorruptible data that does not have a single point of failure and cannot be controlled by a single entity, making it potentially an ideal platform for digital voting.

Current Blockchain Voting Applications

There are proposals for a few different blockchain voting systems.

  • Votebook

The Votebook system does not use remote voting because of the security vulnerabilities: authentication is delicate and easily compromised, voters’ personal computers could be compromised, voter intimidation is more likely remotely, auditing is more difficult remotely, and, most alarmingly, the developers found that even a “minimally resourced adversary could launch a Denial of Service attack on an entire neighbourhood“. This is why Votebook, as well as most voting cybersecurity experts, favour a paper-based audit trail.

Votebook’s system involves voting machines that look like traditional voting booths but act as nodes on a blockchain. The Votebook voting machines collect casted votes on election day. The machines organize them into a “block”. They then broadcast the block on the network. Every other node checks the validity of its components using a public key to decrypt the hash. The receiving nodes then verify the hash of the previous block in the database to make sure no tampering occurred.

With the Votebook system, the voting experience is almost identical to the current voting experience, while being more secure and reliable than current electronic voting options.

  • Follow My Vote

The startup Follow My Vote is also trying to implement a blockchain voting solution. However, its implementation is very different from Votebook. The difference is the method of casting votes.

With Follow My Vote, the voter has to install a “voting booth” on their computer, tablet or smartphone. The voter also needs to verify his/her identity by submitting legal documents to a so-called “Identity Identifier”, which presumably will have been approved by the entity holding the election. Once a voter’s identity is verified, he/she can request a ballot and vote digitally. One interesting thing about the Follow My Vote system is it allows voters to change their vote right up to the end of election day. Once the polls close, the most recent vote counted.

For use in political elections, Follow My Vote’s approach of e-voting is flawed. There are too many security vulnerabilities. However, for private elections with less at stake, it could still be an option.

  • VoteWatcher

VoteWatcher is a branch of Blockchain Technologies Corporation (BTC). It describes itself as a blockchain voting system not just for government elections but all types of voting. To date, VoteWatcher has been used at eleven different voting events and has counted up 5,000 votes.

Just like Votebook, voters’ experience with VoteWatcher’s is similar to traditional voting in that they are using a paper ballot. However, the ballot will contain three QR codes — one is a blockchain address, one is a ballot ID, and one is an election ID. An onsite machine scans the marked ballots and sends the votes to the proper candidate’s unique address (similar to a bitcoin wallet) on an offline blockchain. The machine also keeps an image of every paper ballot. Once the election is over, all the machines connect on a network and start adding the votes to a final online blockchain. Using this method, anyone can check how many votes each candidate acquired in real time using a blockchain explorer.

VoteWatcher uses blockchain as a tamper-proof and public auditing system but paper ballots still back everything. The reason is the same as Votebook’s: internet voting is impossible to secure if done remotely.

  • A Blended Approach

Based on the three examples above, it would seem a voting system that uses a blockchain as a public ledger but still uses paper ballots is the most realistic option for government elections today. Following this logic, Systems Engineering Professor Jeremy Clark has proposed a system that would continue to use paper ballots for voting, with an auditing and counting system that uses the blockchain.

In Clark’s proposal, voters would register to vote in the same way they do today. They would also vote similarly in an offline and physically secure station. However, they would use paper ballots with three QR codes similar to those developed by VoteWatcher. Once voting is over, machines store all digital information on a DVD or flash-drive before they go online. The DVD or flash drive and the physical ballots are securely stored in case auditing is necessary. Once online, each machine becomes a node in a “permissioned blockchain”, similar to that proposed by Votebook.

Thus, Clark proposes a very secure voting method for governmental elections that borrows from both VoteWatcher and Votebook. It uses the benefits of blockchain to enable the scalability of old-fashioned paper voting. This approach minimizes threats while creating a transparent and incorruptible voting record with digital and paper audit and recount features.

Governments Might Not Want a More Secure Voting Method

Despite being a more secure technology, there are obstacles to adoption of blockchain voting for political elections. First, the technology is new and relatively unknown to the general public. Second, blockchain voting requires a robust and reliable internet infrastructure, as well as access to expensive voting machines. There aren’t many regions that can meet these requirements. Finally, and most importantly, some governments might not want fair and secure elections. Why? Naturally, they might lose the ability to manipulate their current voting systems. For blockchain voting to become more common, governments must be willing to improve the democratic process.

Nonetheless, there are signs the political adoption of blockchain voting is underway.  In Denmark in 2014, the Danish Liberal Alliance used a blockchain system to conduct an internal vote. The Libertarian Party used the VoteWatcher system at least twice to count votes at Conventions in the U.S. In 2016, Ukraine and the United States signed a memorandum to develop a blockchain voting system. Russia also announced in 2016 it had developed a blockchain-based proxy voting system. Finally, the Australian Flux party has advocated for blockchain voting in Australian elections.

Conclusion

Traditional voting methods and the blockchain voting solutions developed so far have limits. Consequently, the best, most realistic implementation method for blockchain voting is to use a physical ballot but count and keep an accurate record of cast ballots using blockchain technology.

Beyond the technical challenges, however, are political ones. In their book Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson argue the primary driver of economic development is whether or not a country’s political system is “inclusive”. An inclusive political system has the people’s best interest at its center. In contrast, an “exclusive” political system has the interests of a wealthy elite at its centre. Arguably, the main way a political system can be “inclusive” is through fair and tamper-free elections. A blockchain system would make this possible.


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