Blockchain

Can blockchain make voting more secure and transparent?

Blockchain - voting
(C) iStock.com/jcrosemann

America’s voting machines are out of date, insecure, difficult to use, and largely supplied by a single vendor whose vote-counting software is proprietary  –  i.e. its inner-workings are a secret.

There could be code  –  intentional or bugs –  in there that adds votes, changes votes, or deletes votes and there would be no way of knowing.

“Transparency” is the often-touted name of the game for today’s governments and corporations, yet it is sorely missing from the election process.

Open-source blockchain technology may just be a tailor-made solution for creating a secure, transparent voting system. The blockchain allows for the creation of publicly viewable, timestamped and signed transactions (records) that cannot be altered or deleted.

Logging election records (ballot data) on the blockchain would not only allow the public to inspect granular election data themselves, it also creates a secure and permanent record that makes it much more difficult for any tampering to go on after the fact.

Timestamped blockchain records would ensure that any data added later would stick out like a sore thumb. When combined with the actual paper ballots used to cast votes, it becomes virtually impossible to manipulate election results undetected. This can’t be said for purely electronic voting systems. Even legendary cryptographer David Chaum’s open source “end-to-end (E2E) verified voting system”, Scantegrity, uses paper ballots with an added, optional ability to verify your vote was correctly recorded after the fact.

Touchscreens, tablets, apps, and interactive ballots are all extra. They are certainly nice things to have (and there are ways of incorporating them into a paper ballot-based system), but they are window dressing.

They don’t fulfill the number one requirement of a voting system: correctly and verifiably counting the intent of every voter.

“the number one requirement of a voting system: correctly and verifiably counting the intent of every voter”

The problems of online voting

Online voting would certainly be convenient and, intuitively at least, should increase voter numbers.

It would be great if everyone eligible to vote automatically received access to an official website/app they can use to vote in any and all elections they are eligible to vote in. Archaic voter registration processes, standing in line at polling sites, and confusing ballots seem so 20th century. Surely something can be done to bring elections into the 21st century with all of the fancy new technology we have available, right?

Unfortunately, it will be a long time before we see internet voting used in government elections.

It’s not because the government is slow to change or dislikes new technology. It’s because there’s no way — not even with blockchain technology — to ensure that the user’s device (desktop, smartphone, magic conch shell) is not compromised.

Paper ballots have two key advantages over an online or fully electronic voting process. First, they are familiar and trusted. Everyone understands that they mark the boxes next to their desired candidates and hand in their ballot.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, paper ballots leave behind physical evidence.

In the event of a re-count or investigation, what are you left with in a purely electronic (online) election system? Zilch.

And, that’s a problem that not even the blockchain can solve. Why? Because even a system that records votes received in a tamper-resistant way (such as on a blockchain), an audit of these records would simply be a review of the computer/software’s calculations and not an attempt to discover actual voter intent.

“it will be a long time before we see internet voting used in government elections”

The benefits of being physical

For now, nothing beats good old-fashioned physical security.

Integrating the benefits of blockchain technology into a paper ballot based voting system creates two powerful audit trails that complement each other; immutable, timestamped digital records on the blockchain and physical copies of those records on paper.

Any discrepancies between the two sets of records would stick out like a sore thumb, with no way to “doctor” them after the fact.

In democratic systems, the stakes are high regarding voting. The outcome of a single election can determining the next 4-8 years or more for a country. This means that it is imperative for there to be absolutely no questions when it comes to the validity of a vote.

Here are some things that can help: Open source inspectable code — at the operating system, hardware driver, and voting system levels. Off-the-shelf, brand-agnostic hardware requirements. Checksum ballots. Data saved on write-once media such as a DVD-R.

Adding public blockchain records is another step in the right direction. Securing elections is difficult, and the blockchain is not a magic bullet – but it’s going to be the biggest improvement we have seen in generations.

 

Nick Nick Spanos - votingSpanos is co-founder of the Zap Project, which works to solve one of the biggest challenges in the blockchain industry by providing an open marketplace for oracles that can provide smart contracts with access to off-chain data). The Zap Project includes the Zap technology stack and the Zap.Store. One of the earliest adopters of bitcoin and blockchain, Nick founded the Bitcoin Center NYC in 2013 and serves as CEO of Blockchain Technologies Corp. Spanos was featured in the recent documentary ‘Banking on Bitcoin’ and has been part of many conferences.

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