How did blockchain technology make its way into the world of elections? You might be surprised to know that blockchain networks have already enabled anonymous voting within their own protocols. With secure blockchains like Bitcoin already utilizing such systems, it seems inevitable that election security would soon be linked with this innovative technology
Blockchain technology boasts a database that provides exceptional security for its users. This is not a baseless claim. A blockchain effectively provides a method of making, recording, and verifying any transaction type that is both secure and transparent. These transactions need not be financial; it is simply any type of transfer between two parties. Specifically, a transfer that would typically demand a third party to validate each party and broker the exchange.
Blockchain removes the dire need for centralized control. In lieu of this, all transactions are decentralized. Basically, their verification is in the hands of the blockchain database itself in the distributed ledger. This is a large part of the technology’s ever-growing appeal. By eliminating that central control, there is very little need for middlemen.
The bottom line is this technology thrives on its secure design. And what near-universal process requires the utmost amount of security? Elections.
It’s no surprise that election security has been a topic of discussion for a while. Though election tampering sounds outlandish – straight out of fiction even – it is actually quite plausible. There are many who are of the belief that those with malicious intent are threatening election security. These actors could potentially infiltrate voting machines, alter voter registration databases, or organize disinformation campaigns.
In this sense, the acclaimed security of blockchain technology could help.
A gateway to election security?
In recent years, we are seeing technology reach – or take over – certain aspects of our daily lives. One of which is election voting. Gone are the days where physically signing a ballot is the main method of voting. As a result, the general interest in using electronic voting in elections is noticeably increasing. The reason for this being that it can supposedly make votes comparatively more secure and quicker to count.
This sounds like a simple update, right? All we have to do is refurbish the old paper process for the modern age. Well, in reality, this shift to electronic voting is not without notable issues.
Security researchers are gradually uncovering an array of vulnerabilities in electronic voting machines in the U.S. Likewise, the idea of mobile application-based voting comes with its own set of concerns regarding verifying voters. And, of course, there’s the additional fear of election fraud. Consequently, some propose that the solution to these problems is using blockchain-based voting.
The basic idea is that by using blockchain it becomes a lot more difficult to tamper with electronic votes. This makes sense, seeing as how blockchain records transactions and doesn’t allow for alterations without the agreement of all parties
Indeed, blockchain is a system that is most famous in regards to recording Bitcoin transactions. However, there have been many tests of it in various other fields. These include storing medical records and validating physical transactions, among many more.
Anonymity & Authenticity
A key requirement for election security is that the voter be anonymous. Outsiders cannot have access information about the way in which someone votes. However, for citizens to cast a vote, they need to be eligible. In order to be eligible, there needs to be a solid way of verifying that. There’s a challenge in balancing these requirements.
Catherine Hammon, the digital revolution knowledge lawyer at the law firm, Osborne Clarke, said in an interview with ZDNet:
“Once it’s on the blockchain, you want person A to be able to see that’s their vote, but you don’t want anyone else to see what happened, because it doesn’t help with making sure the election is fair.”
Those who support blockchain voting state that it adds to the general integrity of elections. Hammon points out, though, that it doesn’t change anything if the voter feels some form of intimidation. Nor is blockchain going to solve anything if the voting terminal cybersecurity is fragile.
On that note, researchers are supposedly discovering that voting terminals from an array of manufacturers are vulnerable to attacks. If the unit does not have proper protection from tampering, using blockchain technology becomes pointless. This is regardless of the intentions are the furthest thing from malicious.
Joe Pindar, director of protecting strategy at the software company, Gemalto, says:
“Blockchain is useful because it’s a distributed system, international observers and interested third parties can have a fully separate copy of that data, which they can work onto to attest that the data within the network is valid and hasn’t been manipulated.”
Nevertheless, there are countries that are actively pushing to introduce blockchain voting to the masses. One of these countries is Brazil, which wants to store election data with the use of the Ethereum blockchain.
With enough speculation fuelling people’s curiosities, it only makes sense to put this idea to the test. During the years 2017 and 2018, there were several testings of blockchain technology in election systems. The results were, shall we say, quite varying. Be that as it may, governments and local authorities worldwide are continuing to test the technology. This past year has seen some interesting results as well.
The city of Zug – commonly known as Switzerland’s “Crypto Valley” – put a blockchain e-vote to the test last summer. This experiment had 220 citizens with a registered digital ID eligible to vote on the platform. The construction of this platform was courtesy of Luxoft and Hochschule Luzern’s Blockchain Lab.
After the trial, a survey of Zug residents would reveal that four in five were open to e-voting in the city. Still, though, there was noticeable division over blockchain’s contributions. Specifically, if the technology was improving the security of electronic voting or if it was making it more challenging. Just 21% said they were of the belief that blockchain technology makes electronic voting more secure. On the other hand, 16% would claim that they had concerns regarding security. Clearly, while there is an interest in incorporating technology, there is still some apprehension.
Moreover, a number of citizens were wishing to continue to have the option to vote by traditional mail. That is until additional progress is made with e-voting.
Voting via mobile apps
Skeptics’ go-to reasoning for why any kind of voting over the Internet won’t work is because it is precarious. What’s more, mobile often adds layers of complexity that further corrode both security and transparency.
Supporters of mobile voting, however, counteract this belief. They claim that making elections accessible through mobile devices can actually help increase voter participation. On top of that, they state that blockchain is the key component in fully securing mobile internet voting.
For the November midterm election, West Virginia was working to make mobile blockchain voting available to overseas voters. People from all 55 counties could be able to partake in this new method of voting. The program received funds with an initial $150K grant from Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist and the former Uber adviser. Tusk’s main intent was to boost voter participation, primarily among active military personnel overseas.
Following his participation in West Virginia’s pilot program, First Lieutenant Scott Warner said:
“In the same amount of time that I could’ve pulled up and watched a YouTube video, I actually got to go perform my civic duty.”
For the pilot, West Virginia utilized Voatz, the blockchain voting startup from Boston. The Voatz app employs the use of facial recognition software as a means to confirm voters’ identities.
The votes are put into storage on the blockchain. They go inside what Voatz refers to as a “digital lockbox” within the cloud. This digital lockbox is basically a secure cloud database. It is extra tamper-proof thanks to the blockchain’s immutable ledger technology. On a primary day, the county clerks will then unlock and collect the votes to process the data.
Voting in Sierra Leone
For all the tests that are being conducted, Sierra Leone and Russia are two countries that already utilize this voting. The country of Estonia embraces it, as well.
Sierra Leone would administer a Blockchain-based voting system in March of last year. It was the first country to ever do so. Leonardo Gammar of Swedish firm, Agora, stores votes in an immutable distributed ledger. This way, it offers instantaneous access to the election results. According to the company, by using this method of storing the data, election data was “third-party verifiable and protected against any possibility of tampering.” Moreover, the results are publicly available to view.
Grammar once made the following comment concerning votes on the Agora blockchain:
“Anonymized votes/ballots are being recorded on Agora’s blockchain, which will be publicly available for any interested party to review, count and validate.”
The main goal of Sierra Leone concerning blockchain voting was to create an environment of trust and transparency. This environment was for the benefit of voters in a contentious election. By using blockchain to record ballots and results immutably, the country effectively creates legitimacy in the election. What’s more, they cut down on fall-out from opposition parties.
“We’re the only company in the world that built a fully-functional blockchain voting platform. Other electronic voting machines are mere ‘block boxes’ that have been increasingly shown to be vulnerable to security attacks. For that reason, many US states and foreign nations have been moving back to paper.”
Voting in Russia
In June of 2019, after a long time of planning, authorities of Moscow would partake in blockchain voting. They would go on to launch a blockchain-based electronic voting system pilot project, not unlike West Virginia. The project was made possible by collaborating with the Moscow City Election Commission and Moscow Department of Information Technology (DIT). These partners would provide the support that was imperative for the successful testing of the project.
The Moscow Department of IT operates primarily in the field of IT. It also follows the policies set in place by the City of Moscow. It guarantees the cross-industry coordination of the several other executive authorities working for the city.
Artem Kostyrko, Deputy Head of DIT, once said:
“We plan to do a test vote in the summer, at the end of June, until the list of participants is determined. While we had conversations with student associations, there are elections to the main councils that have been held on the blockchain for a long time. And we are planning to collect some feedback and see what changes will have to be made to the program.”
The blockchain system is not necessarily a replacement for the regular voting system. Nevertheless, it is representative of another form of voting that the Muscovites once used. The Russian Duma would save the outcomes of e-voting with the aid of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT). This would effectively enhance transparency in elections and ultimately eliminate the need for intermediaries in the electoral process.
Virginia’s state legislature
In the U.S., the state legislature of Virginia is looking to study blockchain to fully improve election security and voting.
On December 27, it underwent the pre-filing process. The new bill requests additional study into elections using blockchain technology made an appearance in Virginia’s General Assembly. The bill, “House Joint Resolution 23,” asks the Department of Elections to make an important decision. It wants them to determine if blockchain technology should be used for securing voter records and election results.
The bill’s advocate is state delegate and cybersecurity specialist, Hala Ayala (D-51). It is evident that it will have a long road ahead of it towards conceivably becoming law. Moreover, it has the potential to alter the way a state of over eight million people will vote.
As per the bill’s current principles, the department will also have to determine another aspect. That being whether the costs and benefits that come from using blockchain technology will outweigh those of traditional registration. Will its capabilities surpass election security measures of the conventional method? There is an expectation for the department to also make recommendations on the implementation of the technology.
Flaws in this integration
A benefit that blockchain voting advocates emphasize is that it helps improve electronic election security. It aids in protecting it from tampering, hacking, and various other outside interference. However, there has been an array of instances where blockchain voting systems still somehow contain security flaws.
In August of last year, there was a discovery made by a security researcher. They found a critical vulnerability in the Ethereum voting system that the Moscow City Duma election was going to use. In the worst-case scenario, it could disclose the votes from individuals using the system. Upon being made aware of the issue, the department began to try and repair the vulnerability ahead of the vote.
With the 2020 U.S. Presidential election on the horizon, electronic voting and election security is unsurprisingly a hot topic. As the U.S. prepares itself, there are several trials of blockchain voting at a local level. To reiterate, West Virginia is among those testing the technology.
Voatz is not exactly out of the woods when it comes to flaws in its system. Following the midterm election, it turns out someone tried to gain unlawful access to the system. Fortunately, there was no altering or viewing of the votes. Senator Ron Wyden has since written to the Department of Defense requesting that the Pentagon audit Voatz. He cites concerns that the app does not do enough to provide protection against outside meddling. Voatz, however, says that Senator Wyden has not contacted them, but it would welcome any audit.
The point is the technology behind blockchain-based voting could be subject to jeopardization. In this sense, it raises questions regarding the security of a system that claims it can combat fraud and interference.
So, what remains to be seen?
Realistically speaking, blockchain is not going to provide a magical solution for the issues with election security. Likewise, it won’t solve issues with counting paper ballots. However, if anonymity and authentication problems are cleared up, it can still provide benefits. It could completely lock down data and ensure nothing can tamper with it.
Catherine Hammon says:
“Once the data about the voting is on the blockchain, it’s locked down, it can’t be changed … It isn’t a cure-all remedy for electronic voting, but there are many ways in which it does help with some of the problems.”
As one can see by Sierra Leone and other trials, there is continuous testing of this technology at a local level. Would it be presumptuous to expect it at a national level in the near future?
Rick Holgate, the research director at Gartner, talks about this inquiry:
“Blockchain today is like 1993 in internet years when it was a very much a green space without a lot of experience, and everyone was trying to play in that space. All that energy was great, but ten years on, a lot of the entrants were gone, eclipsed by late entrants who dominated the market.”
The government and the general public have a tendency to move slowly when it comes to embracing certain innovations, notably with election security. With that in mind, it will be a while until blockchain-based national elections experience widespread adoption. These systems need extensive testing before they can undergo distribution on a national scale.