Voting security has become a significant issue in many countries. Some have argued blockchain voting systems could solve election fraud problems and reinvigorate democratic governance. In this article, I explore the possibility of blockchain voting. First, by looking at the problems with traditional voting systems. Second, by exploring the technology of the blockchain and its benefits for voting. Third, I look at current work being done on blockchain voting and suggest the most realistic implementation method for political elections is an approach that balances the use of new technology with elements of traditional voting. I conclude by addressing challenges to the widespread adoption of blockchain voting methods, in particular, why some governments might not be in a hurry to embrace such a change.
Current Voting Systems Threaten Democracy
Democracy is a system of governance whereby those who are governed participate in the 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 in the context of large modern nations:
- It is not scalable. Paper-based voting is best suited to smaller local forms of government. There are significant challenges with ensuring accuracy when the method is used on a large scale.
- Paper-based voting is often combined with electronic voting machines, which are much less secure than paper ballots. Each machine introduces multiple security vulnerabilities that make elections easier to manipulate.
Some argue blockchain technology can solve these problems. First, because it is massively scalable, and second because it is tamper-proof. Is this true? Could blockchain technology offer a safe and reliable voting method suited to the needs of modern democracies?
The Technology Behind Blockchain Voting
To understand blockchain voting requires understanding how the blockchain works. Some have claimed the invention of the blockchain is as important as the creation of the Internet. At its core, a blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a secure and ever-growing ledger of records of activity known as blocks:
“Picture a spreadsheet that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. Then imagine that this network is designed to regularly update this spreadsheet and you have a basic understanding of the blockchain.”
A network of nodes manages this ledger. The nodes are computers connected to a network that have agreed to process the validity of online transactions. When a node validates a transaction it adds it to a group known as a “block.”The transactions on the network are public in the sense their validity can be checked by anyone. The blocks of valid transactions are added to the database in chronological order, one after the other, hence the name blockchain. Altogether, the nodes in the network maintain the ledger. This distributed method of storing verified data is very versatile. The type of information stored can be almost anything. There are cryptocurrency transactions like bitcoin, but also health records, land titles, supply chain records, copyright and royalties, and votes.
Blockchain is Transparent and Incorruptible
To see why blockchain voting could be an appealing option for political elections requires looking at the technology in a bit more depth. When the first block of a chain is added, it is marked with something called a hash function. As the second block is added, it is also marked with a hash function that contains part of the first block’s hash. When a node (computer) submits a new block to the chain and has changed any of the information included within the previous blocks (i.e. altered the records in the ledger), the hash function of that block would also need to be changed. When the altered block is then added to the blockchain, however, all the other nodes in the network can see that its hash function is different. This means a change must have been made on previous blocks and the node’s update will be rejected.
Thus, blockchain technology allows for transparent and incorruptible storage of data. It is decentralized in that it cannot be controlled by a single entity and there is no single point of failure. This fundamental aspect of blockchain technology is what makes it tamper-proof and secure, as well as a potential platform for political voting.
Existing Blockchain Voting Systems
A few different blockchain voting systems have been proposed.
Follow My Vote is developing a blockchain voting solution that involves remote electronic voting. The voter has to install a “voting booth” app 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 electronically. 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.
Follow My Vote’s approach has some challenges to being adopted by governments for use in political elections. The electronic voting method makes authentication hard. Voters’ computers could be easily compromised by malware, etc.. Voter intimidation is more likely remotely. Auditing is more difficult with remote voting because there is no paper trail. Most alarmingly, even a “minimally resourced adversary could launch a Denial of Service attack on an entire neighbourhood”.
In short, there are significant security vulnerabilities to e-voting being used for political elections. Though, it could be an option for private elections with less at stake.
Votebook is another project trying to implement a blockchain voting solution. However, its approach is very different from Follow My Vote. The difference lies with how votes are cast. The Votebook system does not use electronic voting. It uses voting machines that look like traditional voting booths, however, the voting booths are computers acting as nodes on a blockchain.
On an election day, the Votebook voting machines collect votes as they are cast and organize them into blocks. The blocks are broadcast on the network and every other node checks the validity of its data 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. The network also creates a paper-based audit trail.
With the Votebook system, the voting experience is very similar to the current voting experience, while being significantly more secure and reliable thanks to the blockchain-based tracking method.
VoteWatcher is a branch of Blockchain Technologies Corporation (BTC). It describes itself as a blockchain voting system that is not just for government elections but all types of voting. To date, VoteWatcher has been used in eleven different voting events and has counted 5,000 votes.
With VoteWatcher the voter experience is once again similar to traditional voting in that voting happens in-person with a paper ballot. However, the ballot contains three QR codes—one is a blockchain address, one is a ballot ID, and one is an election ID. Once a voter marks the ballot, it is scanned by an onsite machine, which sends the vote to the proper candidate’s unique address (similar to a bitcoin wallet) on an offline blockchain. The machines keep an image of every ballot. Once the election is over, all the machines are connected on a network and start adding the votes to a final public blockchain. With this method, anyone can check how many votes each candidate acquired in real time using a blockchain explorer.
Thus, VoteWatcher uses blockchain technology to create a public auditing system with paper ballots as a backup.
A Blended Approach
Based on the three examples above, it would seem a voting system that uses a blockchain to allocate and record votes as well as also paper ballots is the best option for political elections. E-voting is impossible to secure if done remotely. This is why most voting cybersecurity experts favour a paper-based audit trail.
Following this reasoning, Concordia University Professor Jeremy Clark has proposed a blended system that would continue to use paper ballots for voting, while adding an auditing and counting system that uses blockchain technology. In Clark’s proposal, voters would register to vote in the same way they do today. They would also vote similarly in offline and physically secure voting booths. However, in doing so they would use paper ballots with three QR codes similar to those developed by VoteWatcher. Once the voting period is over, the booths/machines would store all digital information on a DVD or flash-drive before they are put online. The DVD or flash drive and the physical paper ballots would be securely stored in case auditing is necessary. Once online, each machine would become a node in a “permissioned blockchain,” similar to what was proposed by Votebook.
Thus, Clark’s system borrows from both VoteWatcher and Votebook to create a very secure voting method that could be used for political elections. It uses blockchain technology to scale traditional on-site voting, which minimizes security risks that come along with e-voting while creating a transparent, incorruptible voting record with both digital and paper audit and recount capabilities.
Governments Might Not Want More Secure Voting
Despite being a more secure technology, there are obstacles to the adoption of blockchain voting for political elections. First, blockchain voting requires a robust and reliable internet infrastructure, as well as access to expensive and energy-intensive machines. There aren’t many countries around the world that can meet these conditions. Second, some governments might not want fair and secure elections since they might lose the ability to manipulate the weaknesses of their current voting systems. For blockchain voting to become more common, therefore, governments around the world must be willing to improve the democratic process in their respective countries.
Nonetheless, there are signs that the political adoption of blockchain voting is underway. The first use of blockchain voting happened in Denmark in 2014 when the Danish Liberal Alliance used a blockchain voting system to conduct an internal vote. The VoteWatcher system was used at least twice to count votes at Libertarian Party Conventions in the U.S. In 2016, Ukraine and the United States-based blockchain firms 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 the use of blockchain voting in Australian elections.
Conclusion: Blockchain Voting at a Local Level
Based on the difficulty with traditional voting methods and the different blockchain voting solutions that have been developed so far, it seems like the most realistic implementation method would be to continue to use physical ballots and onsite voting with blockchain technology to count and keep a secure record of votes.
Beyond the technical challenges of blockchain voting, however, are political ones. Arguably, 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 centre. Whereas, an “exclusive” political system is centred around the interests of a powerful elite. Fair and tamper-free elections are perhaps the primary way a political system can be inclusive. This can be enhanced using a blockchain voting system. Yet, this is precisely why blockchain voting might encounter resistance in more exclusive political systems. The government has a vested interest in the way things presently operate.
One a way to respond to this situation is perhaps to focus on the implementation of blockchain voting at local levels, where it will be relatively easier to accomplish. If such efforts are successful in numerous locations in a single country, perhaps one of the effects will be to pull the broader political system towards inclusivity.