Ordering food has been digitised. Hailing a ride has been digitised. Legal advice is also being digitised. Should the most common way of voting – paper-based voting – also be digitised?
Whilst e-voting (through using electronic ballots on devices at polling stations) and i-voting (through internet browsers) are being used, there remain issues with the way such systems facilities elections. Perhaps blockchain is the answer.
Born out of the cryptocurrency, bitcoin, blockchain can help secure data. Blockchain is a “decentralised network in which each ‘block’ represents a piece of information as computer code”, which records all transactions that take place on a publicly viewable and transparent ledger.
The transactions take place between users without an intermediary, using nodes to verify transactions and record them in the ledger, with each node storing its own copy and updating regularly. Thus, to continue operating, the nodes must be synchronised, verifying the data and ensuring there is no tampering.
Bitcoin makes it computationally hard to alter a transaction within its ledger, allowing for integrity, whilst the distributed mining process of blockchain preserves that integrity without the need for a central authority or trust in other users. Consequently, blockchain, as implemented by bitcoin, could lend itself to protecting voting systems.
Difficulties with Current E-Voting/I-Voting
One can argue that there are three main requirements in facilitating elections. Firstly, all votes must come from registered voters who can cast a maximum of one vote. Secondly, the final count must reflect all votes cast. Finally, the casting of the vote must be ‘receipt-free,’ so that a third-party cannot determine how a user had voted, to prevent vote buying and coercion. After all, the private ballot is of the utmost importance.
With onsite e-voting, the machines themselves pose a liability; the possibility of malware on the client side machine that monitors the user placing their vote and then later changing their vote to a different candidate. Further, the presence of trojans, viruses or other software when the vote is cast can cause nefarious interference.
Additionally, the machine can also be the target of attacks if the servers that store the encrypted data are hacked. As each voting station across a nation will access the server to store the data, the machines are key access points and thus a vulnerability. This was the case, allegedly, with the latest US presidential elections.
On the other hand, internet voting poses difficulties with validating the user, as the system requires sending information to a server to verify the voter is who they say they are. As a result, there could be issues with the user’s computer being compromised or difficulties arising out of using public WiFi to vote.
There is also the client issue of integrity, such as if the user’s device is compromised, allowing a keylogger, for example, to record the user’s credentials and use them to vote against the will of the original user. Verifying the user presents an issue for the privacy of the vote, since the server will record the time of voting, alongside a personal identifier, potentially usurping the protections in place to guard the freedom of voting, since governments could identify the voter and how they voted. Hackers can also manipulate the verification software into thinking a vote has been cast – or cast differently. This conflicts with the receipt-free approach.
Moreover, log-in credentials can be stolen, misused or forgotten, potentially locking someone out a vote or allowing another to vote as they wish. Additionally, the lack of a paper trail to combat the aforementioned privacy breach would make auditing the results harder.
Is Blockchain the Solution?
An undoubtable advantage of blockchain is the inability to retroactively edit ‘blocks.’ Once a vote is in the chain, with the voter being declared as voted, it is un-editable, creating ‘an immutable and tamper-proof way,’ to store the vote. Any attempt to edit the chain would invalidate the later versions, showing that there had been tampering. This provides protection against attempts to alter the votes thus eliminating one of the avenues for voter fraud: manipulating the voting database.
Furthermore, since elections are a trusted system, there is no need to protect against a centralised power, as the nature of the elections provide that there is a centralised authority giving oversight. As such, this would allow the central authority to oversee the encryption nodes which store and distribute the chain, protecting against tampering in real time. With onsite devices or internet voting, it is harder to audit such systems on the fly.
While blockchain was explicitly designed for transactions on a public ledger, without central oversight, its characteristics make it malleable to support voting systems. Designed as a solution to double-spending in e-cash situations, this can ‘also ensure there is no double voting, and its transparency and public availability make it auditable.’ Votem CEO, Pete Martin, adds that blockchain is ‘fault-tolerant, you cannot change the past, you cannot hack the present, you cannot alter the access to the system, every node with access can see the exact same results, and every vote can be irrefutably traced to its source.’
Furthermore, each voter has the ability to change his or her vote at any time during the process, using their unique ID that is attached to the chain.
Some Challenges Facing Blockchain E-Voting
Despite the blockchain itself being very secure, the requirement of private keys and passcodes to both access the voting platform and verify the votes can give rise to a number of difficulties.
For example, should a user forget their ID or lose it, they are barred from voting. Such information might also fall into the hands of malicious users. Furthermore, a password reset function would increase attackers trying to reset user information without their knowledge and use such attempts to achieve their nefarious goals.
Moreover, paper-based voting is accessible by all whereas some can argue the latest digitisation suits only the tech-savvy. Thus, the new system must be intuitive and easy to use. The complicated system behind the voting will be more than an average voter could understand, thus the delivery of the system must be simple, clear and user-friendly.
Lastly, there is the influence of the government as the central authority in a blockchain, designed to work specifically in absence of a central authority. Rather than being tied between users, the voting blockchain will involve the state as a third party, removing the anonymity of each user and therefore trying to attach that technology to voting, where a voter must be confirmed, could present fundamental problems. However, some electoral systems are not entirely anonymous.
The UK, for instance, has a ‘pseudonymous’ paper voting system which utilises a code to link each ballot paper with a personal entry on the electoral registry. While one would not find it easy discover how an individual voted, it does remain a possibility. The blockchain would also be pseudonymous, thus indicating that it may sometimes be possible to discover how an individual voted. Since blockchain would keep your vote on a ledger, the government has a record of who voted and how they voted.
Additionally, blockchain is designed to work without a third-party and by users who do not trust each other, as is expounded by Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin’s creator, ‘the main benefits are lost if a trusted third party is still required to prevent double-spending.’ Contrastingly, the proposed use of blockchain in a voting environment sees a large and trusted third-party running through the middle of the system.
With the US specifically, the blockchain would serve to unify voting across all states. Whilst this would initially conflict with state-level power to regulate voting procedures, the weight of a nationwide election could prove difficult for a unified system. The lack of a centralised voting infrastructure may lend itself well to protecting against a single hack disrupting the election process. Furthermore, the amount of users simultaneously using the blockchain could raise difficulties for the volume of data, or blocks, being produced.
Voting on a blockchain is hard to manipulate but the devices on which the voting takes place are not immune to interference. The hardware or software connecting to the chain can be abused, for example, one could alter the code on a machine to always vote for a particular party, and the chain would reflect this input. Lastly, blockchain does not alter the situation with gerrymandering. Even if one could be sure that the machines are completely infallible, one could still design voting zones in such a way to favour a particular party or candidate. Blockchain would not solve this issue.
A Possible Solution?
Blockchain voting also represents a change in voting values and politics – it proposes an alternative with a different set of values and political basis. The system would change from one where the ‘authorities manage elections and the process is black-boxed, centralised and top-down,’ to a situation where, ‘the process is managed by the people and it is transparent, decentralised and bottom-up.’ Thus, one could see the blockchain system as asserting the primacy of people rather than reinforcing the authority of the state.
Withal, whilst blockchain could certainly increase the integrity of the election process, this does not necessarily translate to security – namely, the machines used to facilitate the election are still vulnerable to attack and blockchain in nature is a public ledger, thus reducing anonymity. Further, blockchain technology does not ameliorate coercion at the voting stations. In this sense, blockchain can be seen as one piece of the election puzzle, securing the integrity of the voting process, such as the ‘ballot box,’ but it cannot prevent other electoral issues. From this perspective, one could submit that blockchain’s value in the electoral process is ensuring that whatever vote is entered, is not tampered with.
Blockchain’s innovation and promise in financial sectors could lend itself well to protecting some elements of the voting process, but until concrete research is conducted, the potential remains somewhat ethereal in electoral processes.
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