Put 3 cups of massive abstention, add a pinch of coronavirus, and sprinkle of previous interference scandals. Boil it all together and you’ll get what the voting system looks like today. Somehow it’s archaic in its paper format, not tamper-proof in its counting, often in conflict with our digitalized – and now social distancing – lifestyles in its processes. Good news is, the History of the voting system is marked by constant evolution toward the resolution of its own vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Well it seems we are at a new turning point today: a much-needed switch to an effective and secure online voting process. To Blockchain, or not to Blockchain, that is the question.
What is Blockchain Voting
Let’s start with a bit of theory. Very briefly.
Three pillars for a democratic voting
To be effective and protect democracy, a voting system must combine anonymity of the voter, integrity of the vote and non-repudiation. Integrity ensures that the vote has not been tampered with during the transfer process. Non-repudiation provides unforgeable evidence that a vote was sent by a specific citizen, and that it was well received by the authorities in charge.
These are the 3 pillars of a democratic voting system that a global online voting process must respect. And this is where the potential of blockchain technology comes into play! Through encryption, blockchain could provide security and anonymity of all transactions, keeping a citizen’s vote secret. Unlike absentee or mail ballots, it’s impossible to link the voters to their vote. Besides, due to its immutable nature – keep in mind that everything recorded in a blockchain cannot be modified – blockchain provides a tamper-free and transparent record. It allows regulators to simultaneously monitor all votes and be alerted if something was amiss in the network.
Blockchain voting already joined the game
But enough theory. Because blockchain voting has already joined the game! Back in March, Seoul launched a blockchain voting platform to allow its residents “to propose suggestions to the government about potential changes to existing policies”. While fraud problems were plaguing the national online system, the use of blockchain technology aimed at ensuring the eligibility of every voter and prevented duplicate votes. More recently, the South Korean national government pledged to invest in a blockchain-based Internet platform “that targets apartment residents across the country”, in a similar attempt to create a more direct and engaging democracy.
On the other side of the Pacific, West Virginia used the blockchain voting app Voatz since 2018 to provide overseas voters – mainly military and expatriate communities – with a secure and convenient way to exercise their democratic rights. Amazing. But what are the flaws, we hear you ask?
So… what are the Dark Sides?
Well dear readers, you see it coming: even if a blockchain-based voting process is promising, it is not ready (yet) to become global. The point is, blockchain technology is precisely that: a technology. As infallible as it may be, it has to be integrated to an overall voting system which involves other elements – whether human, legal, technical… The reliability and security of the whole system depends on each of its parties as much as on the rules that govern and bind them together.
#1 The Malware Menace
Even if the blockchain technology itself has proven to be secure and near-impossible to hack, it is still possible for malware to infect voters’ or/and elections office’s computers or devices. Besides, in case of a hack, the risk is to see everyone’s vote become public. No thanks! Last February, a security analysis from MIT researchers revealed such a vulnerability – among others – in Voatz app: “the researchers concluded that an attacker who compromised a voter’s phone would be able to observe, suppress, and alter votes nearly at will”.
#2 The Risk of the Clones
Yes, blockchain technology can ensure eligibility, allowing only registered voters to vote once and only once. But previous to this validation is the key step of voter identity registration. The challenge is to ensure that the identity data put onto the blockchain is accurate, so that only authorized persons can access the system. While some solutions are being tested – such as fingerprinting – risks of fraud, double voting or other attempts to alter the information and registration authentication still exist.
#3 Revenge of Distrust
While the benefits of blockchain-based voting are indisputable, it is proving difficult to put faith in the technology just yet, based on the results so far. Significant gaps in security, such as the ones revealed by MIT analysis about Voatz app, lead to uncertainty and a lack of consensus about a global adoption of an online voting system, including a blockchain-powered one.
In such a context, the traditional paper ballot system might remain the favored one. Some argue that « tampering with mailed paper ballots is a one-at-a-time attack. Infecting voters’ computers with malware or infecting the computers in the elections office that handle and count ballots are both effective methods for large-scale corruption, » as Jeremy Epstein said, vice chairman of the Association for Computing Machinery’s U.S. Technology Policy Committee.
New Solutions are Emerging
Even with those limitations, implementing blockchain into our voting system could address a lot of existing problems. The promise of bringing secure voting into people’s homes creates hope for a renewed interest in democracy. With the declining voter turnout rate in U.S. presidential elections, many actors have taken part in this reflection. And many innovative proposals are emerging. Earlier this month, the Associated Press partnered with the blockchain-based encyclopedia Everipedia to count votes and publish the results of the upcoming US election on blockchain. While this year’s election will be held in an unprecedented context of doubt, it will increase transparency and provide voters with the “confidence that their data is immutable and secure”.
This is a huge step for the entire blockchain industry! At Ledger, we firmly believe in the potential of blockchain to create a better democratic future in which your voice is kept safe. As deserved. Because this is your power.