Can Blockchain Make Elections Great Again?

Dany Chetverikov
February 9, 2021
Blockchain Voting

Digitalization is a global trend, as all government services are moving away from good old paper to cloud storage. But there is one exception — political voting. Why in 2021 you still can not vote for the president online?  The reasons include technical problems, an endless series of failed experiments, and public distrust. 

Blockchain technology appears as the obvious savior, as it was invented to solve the trust problem. Can blockchain revolutionize political voting? Let’s find out! 

Off-chain voting

The 2020 U.S. presidential election will be remembered by the whole world as, least to say, controversial. Not everyone trusted the official results, largely due to one of the candidates — Donald Trump. He did not accept the loss, promised to challenge it in court, and spoke of numerous frauds on Twitter.

The grounds for this distrust were the complicated voting procedures and mass voting by mail. The latter measure was designed to minimize contact between voters due to the coronavirus pandemic.

We agree, voting by mail with ballots sent in envelopes seems an odd and outdated solution. If anything, the pandemic has accelerated the already ubiquitous digitalization of services of all kinds. It makes sense that in such times, it would be much more convenient to vote online.

So why did the U.S. authorities decide to use such an archaic method? And generally, why in the XXI century is it necessary to go to some polling station to put a tick there for a candidate? Why not solve this problem via the web?

The answer is simple — traditional voting with paper ballots is still more trusted than internet voting.

Online voting lacks trust

To establish the terminology, online voting is not the same as electronic voting. The latter also involves a voting system at polling stations, but with the help of devices installed there.  Voters drop their completed ballots for the device to scan. The scanner determines the voter’s decision and transmits the result to a central server. In the case of online voting, a voter can express his political rights from the comfort of his or her own home. 

Examples of countries where electronic voting with devices is widely used include Brazil, India, and the United States.

At the same time, there is only one country that has introduced online voting on the full scale — Estonia. It has been used there for a long time — since 2005. At the last parliamentary elections in 2019, about 44% of Estonians voted online.

Voting via the Internet in Estonia starts earlier than voting in person. On the appointed day, an app opens on the Election Commission website. A citizen must be identified with a SIM card and a Mobile ID connected to it. No other country has ever fully introduced online voting. Society trusts such services even less than paper voting because of the lack of transparency.

This is largely due to the fact that the development of such systems and their testing is financed by the government. They choose a specific company that develops the app according to formal criteria. Because of this, bugs and vulnerabilities are almost always found in the code, and that’s if the code is published at all.

For example, in 2019, researchers found a cryptographic backdoor in a voting system developed for Switzerland. And in 2020, researchers at MIT severely criticized the Voatz mobile voting app — it was used in limited numbers in local elections in several U.S. states. Notably, the developers of Voatz claimed that their app used blockchain to protect the data, but the scientists proved that claim wrong.

Open code is the key

One of the most significant problems of all experiments with online voting is their separation from the expert community and concealment of the code base.

From the very early stages, it is necessary to connect experts from various fields. They should discuss the concept of the future platform in a public dialogue with a detailed analysis of all the possible critical points.

Using open-source systems for voting platforms increases trust and reduces the risk of hacking. In case a private company is developing an app or third-party application code is used, disclosure of source code raises intellectual property issues.

Pros and cons of blockchain voting 

In theory, blockchain technology perfectly fits voting. It is a more secure and reliable tool for the collection and processing of data in comparison with conventional centralized databases. Not surprisingly, U.S. presidential election and related scandals renewed the community discussion on the implementation of blockchain for online voting.

One of those who spoke in favor of blockchain was the head of the Binance exchange, Changpeng Zhao:

There was enough argumentative criticism in the comments — from an unwillingness to pay for the app to the lack of smartphones for every voter.

Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin supported CZ:

Some experts believe that blockchain will not make online voting reliable — a conclusion published by MIT specialists.

The researchers claim that voting is very different from the purchase of goods or financial transactions over the Internet. If hackers gain access to a user’s bank card, the bank can block it or even return stolen funds. In the case of blockchain voting, if a vote is somehow altered or not counted, there is almost no way to change the result.

Another problem lays in the fundamental principle of voting anonymity. After the citizen votes, it is impossible to leave any links between the vote and the identity of the voter. This makes it impossible to determine and prove an error, fraud, falsification, or other facts of vote distortion. 

One of the main problems outlined by the MIT scientists is the scale effect. Just a single error in the code can affect many voters and their decision. There is also the danger of a zero-day attack — the use of a known but yet not patched vulnerability by hackers.

Election commissions and observers on blockchain

In addition to engaging third-party developers to refine the code of the voting system, it is worth thinking about the use of an instrument that creates trust in traditional elections — the independent observers. 

They can be introduced using so-called auditor nodes. These nodes are hosted by candidates, public organizations, and international observers. Auditor nodes participate in a shared blockchain network and can monitor the voting process — incoming votes and issued ballots. In addition, organizations using auditor nodes can create external interfaces and give access to election observation to the general public.

In addition, the electoral commissions, which serve as the main source of confidence in the elections in democratic countries, can also be transferred to blockchain.

The electoral commission, in particular, is responsible for the “reality” of the votes by verifying the pre-formed voter books. The participation of even one independent member in an election commission is capable of preventing fraud on the part of the election commission.

The principles of the commission formation and working conditions play an important role. The main goal is to make the commissions independent from external interference and impartial in counting the votes and their final count.

The future of online voting

Summing it all up, online voting can reshape the current election institutes and increase societal trust in the system. The ideal voting platform will most likely include the following characteristics:

  • Open-source software with the participation of industry experts who can suggest improvements and point out the vulnerabilities
  • Use of blockchain technology for data verification and immutability 
  • Use of cryptography for data encryption and voter anonymity
  • Monitoring and rapid troubleshooting of the voting process
  • Access to voting data for independent observers
  • Introduction of virtual election commissions

It is possible that soon these features will become the standard for online voting. What’s more, someday the online voting process may be fully automated — like DeFi.

However, just like in DeFi, it is impossible to avoid bugs, backdoors, and exploits. So, you will need a large community of developers who are constantly updating the code — a kind of civil society participation.

In reality, online voting will probably never completely replace the traditional system.  One of the reasons is digital separation — not all voters have access to the Internet and sufficient skills to use digital services. It is also possible that voters divide according to their personal trust in the traditional or blockchain voting system. At least for the next few years, online voting will be a supplement to the general voting system.

Even if blockchain-based online voting solutions can solve the problem of distortions in the voting and counting process, it is still impossible to counteract the factors that lie outside the electoral system: propaganda, the exclusion of candidates, coercion of government workers to vote, and other tools of manipulation, largely used by modern “electoral authoritarianism” regimes. Online voting can and will be a more convenient way to vote, but it will not be a panacea.

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