Blockchain is coming to an election near you, but don’t expect it to be perfect
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Two major election scandals have plagued the United States over the past twenty years. In 2000, there were widespread reports of a miscount. In 2016, it was alleged that various individuals had committed voter fraud by casting ballots in more than one state.
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Running parallel to these incidents is an effort to use technology to uphold the electoral process. The rise of blockchain in the collective consciousness has led some to argue that it might provide a solution, but others maintain that it’s not the silver bullet it’s being made out to be.
Blockchain can underpin a tamper-proof ledger of information that the public could access without security concerns. Its combination of anonymous use and decentralized data storage has encouraged a bevy of start-ups to examine blockchain as a way to make voting fair, accountable, and secure.
Could blockchain help tackle these problems? We asked experts working in the field.
Joe Kiniry, the CEO of Free And Fair, has spent his life focusing on computer systems that need to be impeccably secure; the technology that makes sure planes don’t fall from the sky, pacemakers don’t fail, and elections aren’t compromised.
“I got interested in elections per se because I grew up in Florida,” said Kiniry when he spoke to Digital Trends last month. “The 2000 election, Bush v. Gore in Florida, was a debacle. I thought, ‘hey, computers could help there,’ and then I realized how hard and interesting the problem was.”
In October 2008, while Kiniry was teaching in Denmark, the original bitcoin white paper was published. He read it, and soon began to experiment with blockchain alongside some of his post-doc students. More recently, he’s been tasked with analyzing specific implementations of the technology as part of his work at the computer science consulting firm Galois.
“Every industry […] has somehow found a way
to think blockchain is applicable to its problems.”
“Various clients are interested in their use, and want to have objective assessment about their utility; how secure are they, are they correct, can I build a business around this technology?” he explained. “It’s people doing due diligence, and that would include the federal government, and the Department of Defense.” Given Kiniry’s experience with voting systems and blockchains, does he think that the technology could be a gamechanger? Not necessarily.
“Every industry that I work in has somehow found a way to think blockchain is applicable to their problems,” he said. “I think most of that enthusiasm is misplaced, and guided more by shiny visions of wealth than actual utility.” Blockchain isn’t a miracle cure that will fix democracy in the US, said Kiniry, but it’s not entirely useless, either.
The 2016 presidential election was preceded, and followed, by numerous accusations of widespread voter fraud. Subsequent investigations found little illegal activity, but that hasn’t quelled suspicions on both sides of the political fence.
A voting machine used in California for the 2016 US Presidential Election. Getty Images
The US lags many countries in its ability to track who can vote. Voters must register ahead of time, while in other parts of the world, registration is automatic – voters instead must present their government-issued ID to confirm their identity, and therefore their right to vote.
“There’s new, novel work using blockchain as a means by which to authenticate people,” said Kiniry. Blockchain is typically used to record and store information, and this implementation ensures anyone trying to cast a vote has that right and hasn’t already exercised it across state lines. The technology has been used to great effect by cryptocurrency companies because transaction verification easy. Its usefulness in that instance mirrors why it could help track voting.
Combatting voter fraud using blockchain would work, but implementing
the complex process may be far more trouble than it’s worth.
On the surface, it seems this idea would eliminate any specter of the doubts circulating during the 2016 election. However, Kiniry has a good reason why the U.S. might not it. There are other, much simpler ways to yield the same effect.
“It’s all kind of an awkward fit, of using something that’s currently popular to solve a problem that you could probably solve – or do currently solve – in a simpler fashion,” he said.
Blockchain isn’t intended for this kind of use. It would work, but implementing it could become a complex process that’s far more trouble than it’s worth. It’s an attempt to force a square peg into a round hole.
Count ‘Em Up
While the 2016 election was surrounded by controversy, the election of George Bush over Al Gore remains the most serious and example of voting problems in modern history. A major study commissioned in 2001 concluded a statewide recount of disputed ballots likely would’ve found Al Gore to be the winner. Even if that’d occurred, however, it would’ve been ripe with its own controversy. Re-counting paper ballots isn’t easy, and every day that passes between a disputed result and a re-count will bring with it more skepticism of the ultimate result’s validity.
“On our side of it, we’re more about using blockchains as ledgers,” said Herb Stephens, president of the Democracy.Earth Foundation, speaking to Digital Trends last month. The organization wants to use the technology to offer a transparent way to monitor the results of an election. In theory, voting by blockchain would be more transparent and tamper-free, but it’d also require a serious re-think of how we approach democracy.
Democracy.Earth’s focus is on what’s called ‘liquid democracy,’ which is quite different from the system of representational democracy that we use today. Instead of voting for an elected official that will weigh in on issues on behalf of their constituents, liquid democracy allows voters to have a say for themselves, or delegate their voice to someone with expertise on the subject. If you didn’t feel that you had enough knowledge about global economics to make an informed decision, but you trusted a well-known economist, you could cede your vote to them.
Liquid democracy sounds good in theory, but it relies on an entirely new technical infrastructure, as noted by IOTA Foundation co-founder Dominik Schiener in an essay published in November 2015. Democracy.Earth wants to use blockchain to make it practical, dispensing tokens to voters that they can use to cast their ballot, or pass on to the expert they want to vote on their behalf.
“The value of your opinion is not only recorded in a place and time [like traditional voting] but because it’s stored in blockchain, it can be moved – it’s liquid, if you will,” said Stephens.
But Democracy.Earth’s plans for liquid democracy would require an overhaul of our current electoral system. This isn’t something that we could tack onto current methods of voting. It might be possible to make a less dramatic change, using blockchain only as a ledger without dramatic changes to voting otherwise, but Kiniry doesn’t see much utility in that.
“The core idea is attractive, that of using it as a reliable mechanism for, basically, a ballot box. But to build any digital voting system requires an enormous number of other pieces. The core thing, of the ballot box, is actually kind of an easy thing that people have been doing for many years, in a reliable fashion.”
Kiniry notes that the very nature of a governmental election is centralized. A decentralized ledger doesn’t seem to add any unique benefit, but it does introduce further complications. It’s advantageous for bitcoin to be decentralized because the lack of government control is a feature for many of its fans, but an election must be tied to a governing body. A single point of control might be easier to keep secure in an era when digital manipulation of election results seems to be a grim reality.
Shouldn’t we select
the most applicable technology to voting rather than retrofit blockchain?
Any technology introduced to the electoral process has to undergo stringent vetting before it’s accepted, and will be subject to resistance from those who would prefer to maintain the status quo. If we are to overhaul the system, there’s an argument that we should select the most applicable technology rather than attempting to retrofit blockchains to this particular use case.
In some ways, Kiniry and Stephens find themselves holding two very different positions when it comes to blockchains and voting, but they’re united on one issue. Both think, for better or worse, the technology will be implemented — and it won’t take long at all.
A vote counter examines a ballot from the controversial 2000 US Presidential Election during a recount of thousands of votes at the Emergency Operations Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Roberto Schmidt/Getty Images
“We are going to see the deployment in America of a blockchain-based voting system, in some jurisdiction or another,” said Kiniry. “I would guess in experimental fashion maybe in 2018, but more likely 2020.” Stephens agreed, also predicting that “we’re going to see blockchains used in voting within the year.”
Kiniry’s apprehension about the eagerness to use blockchains is due to his prior experience. “The core issue in 2000 actually came down to poorly designed paper ballots,” he explained. “Rather than solve the problem by designing the ballots better, they solved the problem by throwing computing at the problem.” He suggested that many legislators look to technology as “a shiny thing that solves problems.”
Eagerness to adopt blockchain may be enhanced by the age of existing voting hardware in the US. Kiniry said that most of it was installed in the late 1990s. Stephens recalled working on a project in the technologically savvy city of San Francisco, where the technology was already fifteen years old. Blockchain’s popularity has occurred just as the country is re-examining how voting happens, making its adoption more likely.
“I think we’re going to see a new wave of deployment of prettier, fancier technology that makes people comfortable with the idea of computers in elections, and there will still be paper ballot records around,” said Kiniry “But once again, we don’t have federal standards ensuring that these systems operate correctly and have security. Standards haven’t evolved.”
Although it seems inescapable, there are lingering questions about whether blockchains can have a positive effect on American democracy. In the United States, the sheer heft of the election process means that it’s difficult, or at least very time-consuming, to enact new technology. The existing process works just well enough, even with its faults, to make leaders reticent to address persistent issues.
“[Within a year or two] we are going to see … a blockchain-based voting system, in some jurisdiction or another.”
That’s not the case in countries where corruption and injustice run rampant.
“When you look at other parts of the world, for example Venezuela, where the government itself isn’t trusted and it’s broken down, the currency is worthless,” said Stephens. “There, citizens are looking for the solutions, so you don’t have to go in and sell it to the government. We’re really providing the solution for the people.”
Democracy.Earth is designing its platform to be open-source, which helps with grassroots attempts to make voting fair. However, it’s also essential when it comes to accountability and security.
“You can’t have trust in the system, unless you can understand it completely, and it’s completely public,” said Kiniry. “So, every crypto system in the world that’s widely deployed is open-source. The point of it being secure is not about keeping it secret, that’s a complete red herring. It’s about having disclosure, and having a security case that is completely independent of the fact that everyone can understand what’s in front of them.”
When it comes to voting, it’s important we don’t buy into the blockchain hype at our own expense. The electoral process could benefit from the access to technology that we have today, making sure that everyone can exercise their right to vote, and producing a result that’s reflective of the country at large. But if we throw blockchain at the problem without looking at the issues at hand, we’re not going to make any progress.
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