In recent years, elections have taken on increased significance in the eyes of voters as political parties drift farther apart. Every election seems to take on the mantra of “the most important in history,” with the public reporting higher levels of agitation and anxiety surrounding outcomes.
However, despite the importance of modern elections, recent polls have shown an erosion of trust in current voting processes. In January, an ABC/Ipsos poll revealed that only 20% of the public is very confident about the integrity of the national election system in the U.S., with the figure representing a 17% drop from the same poll conducted last year.
The lack of faith seems to span all political parties. Only 30% of Democrats say they are “very confident” in the U.S. election systems overall, while only 20% of independents consider themselves “very confident” in the nation’s elections. Amazingly, only 13% of Republicans report being “very confident” in America’s election process.
As the public faces a crisis of confidence in elections, many in the crypto community have called for the use of blockchains to replace the current voting system. Well-known figures such as Changpeng Zhao, CEO of Binance, as well as Vitalik Buterin, one of the creators of Ethereum, have been vocal in expressing their support for blockchain voting. Buterin stated that though there would be technical challenges, the call for a blockchain-based, mobile voting app “is directionally 100% correct.”
In recent years, blockchain technology has revolutionized industries such as cloud storage, smart contracts, crowdfunding, and healthcare, and many are wondering if its next target is the way we vote.
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What is the Blockchain?
A blockchain can be thought of as a digital ledger that records transactions across one or more parties. Every blockchain is decentralized, meaning that it can be accessed from anywhere in the world, and no single user controls it. Blockchain technology is also cryptographically secure, anonymized, and is used in nearly all cryptocurrency systems.
Ultimately, the technology draws its power from nodes found on its network, which verify, process, and record all transactions on the ledger. What sets the blockchain apart from other similar systems is that these transactions, which exist on a “chain” supported by millions of nodes operating simultaneously, are incorruptible and easily verifiable. Simply put, blockchain transactions can be inspected by anyone, and the network cannot be brought down by hackers because it doesn’t exist in a single location.
The potential features of a decentralized voting system are simply too appealing for many researchers to pass up. A blockchain system would not require voters to submit their identity while voting, and their specific addresses would be concealed from others. Officials would also be able to count votes with absolute confidence, assured that each ID could be attributed to a single vote.
The real clincher – blockchain voting would not need to concern itself with a high-security Internet connection because any party attempting to tamper with an access point would not be able to infect other nodes.
Problems With Current Methods
Despite the best efforts of election officials who have attempted to implement online voting, serious problems exist with the technology that could make it a prime target for hackers and other nefarious actors.
One country that is seeking to move towards an electronic voting model is Estonia, which allowed the public to vote online in its 2013 elections. Despite the apparent success of the voting process, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan found serious flaws when they replicated the Estonian system using its published software.
The team, which was allowed to observe the October 2013 municipal elections, said they witnessed officials downloading key software over insecure internet connections, typing PINs and passwords in view of cameras, and preparing election software on insecure PCs.
Harri Hursti, an independent researcher who works for the web security company SafelyLocked, summed up the team’s report when she stated, “These computers could have easily been compromised by criminals or foreign hackers, undermining the security of the whole system.”
While Estonia has provided an interesting case study for online voting, many of its citizens still refuse to vote through the Internet, with only 247,232 people, or 43.8% of all participants, voting online in the 2019 parliamentary elections.
The recent U.S. presidential election in 2020 also shed a spotlight on problems that can occur when mixing voting and the Internet. A report issued by Wisconsin officials reviewing the voting process in their state found that several voting machines were made with a 4G wireless modem installed, enabling them to connect to the internet through a Wi-Fi hotspot.
During the investigation, one municipality admitted that these machines were connected to the internet on election night to transmit data about votes to the county clerks. Additionally, it was revealed that all machines in Green Bay were connected to a secret, hidden Wi-Fi access point at the Grand Hyatt hotel, which was the location used by the City of Green Bay on the day of the 2020 Presidential election.
The Wisconsin report only raises further questions about the long-term feasibility of Internet voting, as well as the many security threats that arise when implementing the technology.
Other election reformers have turned to mail-in voting as a potential cure for the problems that have long plagued the integrity of the voting process. However, much like online voting, mail-in voting has the potential to be abused by those who want to game the system.
Mail-in ballots can be altered, stolen, or forged, as evidenced by a recent municipal election in in Paterson, New Jersey, where the voting was conducted entirely by mail.
Four Paterson residents have already been charged with criminal election fraud, including a councilman and councilman-elect. Additional evidence has come to light that many voters never received their absentee ballots (even though they are recorded as having voted).
Many U.S. states also lack the capability to count so many paper ballots. In New York, officials took more than a month to count the votes from its June 23, 2020 primary election, which angered residents.
A 2005 Congressional bipartisan electoral reform commission summed up the research when it concluded concluded that vote-by-mail programs create “concerns about privacy, as citizens voting from home may come under pressure to vote for certain candidates” and increase the “risk of fraud.”
How Decentralized Voting Could Work
While developers have envisioned different methods for implementing blockchain technology when voting, there exist a number of key steps that many agree would occur in a blockchain system.
The following actions would most likely take place in a decentralized voting model:
- A voter enters his/her credentials in order to vote.
- All data is encrypted and stored as a transaction.
- The transaction is then broadcast to every node in the network, which is then immediately verified.
- The data is stored in a block and added to the chain when the network approves the transaction (once this is added, it cannot be altered/changed).
- Users can review results and also trace back transactions should they choose.
What many do not know is that decentralized voting systems have been trialed successfully in other parts of the world.
In November 2018, the Thai Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest political party, held a primary election to elect its new party leader using the digital token ZCoin. The move was significant as it marked the first large-scale political election carried out using blockchain technology.
In the end, a total of 127,479 votes came from all parts Thailand to decide the winner, and the election went off without a hitch.
The Future of Blockchain Voting
One company that is pioneering the adoption of decentralized voting systems is Horizon State. Founded in 2017, the company provides a secure, digital ballot box that aims to correct to the problems inherent in voting procedures.
When the company’s product is finalized, participants will use decision tokens (HST) to cast votes from a mobile phone or PC, which are then entered into the blockchain and used to verify the outcome of the election.
Horizon State claims their company will eliminate manipulation, tampering, and recording errors. The software has applications outside of voting, and can affect any environment where a group has inputs on key decisions.
The European Union
The E.U. also has plans to implement a blockchain-based system in the future, with the government funding various startups aimed to transform the space.
One company, called Crypto-Voting, has stated that their main goal is to “develop a new electronic voting system integrated with one or more electoral event management procedures.” The company is the brainchild of a collaboration between Net Service S.p.A. and the Department of Mathematics and IT (DMI) of the University of Cagliari.
The project will attempt to implement its model through the use of two connected sidechain-style blockchains – with one to register voters and votes, and another for counting the votes allocated to the various candidates.
Some of the key initiatives that the project aims to influence include the following:
- Electoral system set-up
- Credential distribution
- Ballot connections
- Preference counting
- Publication of results
Drawbacks of Blockchain Voting
Despite the enthusiasm for merging blockchain technology and voting among many members of the crypto community, others believe that this electronic voting model is unrealistic.
A recent MIT paper, written by Ron Rivest, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) professor and one of the creators of RSA encryption, and Neha Narula, Director of MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative (DCI), pointed out a number of problems with blockchain-based voting.
The authors stated, “The biggest issue is that blockchain-based approaches require that voters use the software in which a single bug could undetectably change what they see – for example, showing them that their vote was cast for a certain candidate when it actually wasn’t.”
The team added, “Blockchain is ripe for situations where election results could be changed in ways that are undetectable, or, even if detected, would be irreparable without running an entirely new election.”
Small Margin For Error
One of the authors’ key points is that there is the little remedy if a vote is altered or not delivered on the blockchain, particularly given that online voting systems might not always recognize when one of these actions occurred.
One reason is that other systems, such as banking, have “higher tolerances for failure.” For example, if an issue were to occur, such as credit card fraud, you could block your card and a bank might even reimburse you. But when it comes to elections, there is no way to reverse these mistakes.
Additionally, a hacker could drive up transaction fees on a public blockchain, further discouraging the “vote.” A blockchain could also be compromised if a majority of the miners or validators collude, creating multiple versions of the blockchain.