By Jordan Hall
With the U.S. electoral process enduring increased scrutiny and skepticism, some advocates argue that blockchain technology could bring an inefficient system into the twenty-first century and, more importantly, improve election security across the board.
Consider, for instance, the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Nearly 100 million eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot, marking a twenty-year low. Long lines plagued key battleground states. In Durham, North Carolina, electronic poll books used to check voter registration failed, and in Colorado, portions of the state’s voter verification system went down, forcing officials to issue provisional ballots to an undisclosed number of voters.
If some of these cases are merely inconvenient, a significant portion represent real problems. Not only does an inefficient voting system discourage voting, but it also provokes public distrust. If the government doesn’t effectively administer a vote, how can we be sure the results are legitimate? If a voting machine fails, how do we know our votes have been recorded — and recorded properly?
According to The Salt Lake Tribune, thousands of mail-in ballots were rejected in Utah. Some were postmarked late; some weren’t signed. Ten ballots were sent in from dead people.
Of course, one of the most infamous cases of election day blundering is still the 2000 U.S. presidential election, during which officials in Florida discovered irregular ballots. The manual recount took over a month, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
And yet the problem has persisted until today. Forty-eight states asked the Department of Homeland Security to help fix security weaknesses in voting machines before the 2016 election.
Blockchains — which are already used in finance, real estate, healthcare and other sectors — not only offer the most secure voting technology available, but they could potentially revolutionize the entire voting process.
Voting Security Advantages on the Blockchain
Every record on a blockchain appears on a peer-to-peer, distributed ledger, meaning that everyone on the network can view and verify records. For election purposes, each vote would connect to an individual voter, and any discrepancies would be solved by simply reviewing the ledger — reducing voter fraud and eliminating the “hanging chad” phenomenon of 2000.
Further, voters’ identities would be completely anonymous. Though individual votes would be publicly available, voters would be masked behind an encrypted key of random numbers and letters. This would ensure privacy and security — much more than traditional ballot boxes — and reduce the possibility of voter suppression: if you can’t identify voters, you can’t target them.
A blockchain is also immutable: that is, every record on the ledger is permanent and unalterable. That would make auditing easier, tampering almost impossible and lost or missing votes a thing of the past. Every ballot would be final and guaranteed.
But perhaps the important security advantage of the blockchain is decentralization. Because the ledger is distributed across a public network, it has no single storage base. For hackers to compromise the network, they would need to hack a majority of the “blocks” and complete the hack before new blocks are created, like an extremely complex game of whack-a-mole. This makes hacking any blockchain hard. For a large blockchain — such as an election blockchain — it would be even harder.
It’s important to note that the blockchain is not a panacea. As Vladimir Smerkis, co-founder of Tokenbox, told The Huffington Post, “Nothing is totally secure and blockchain has vulnerabilities like any other system.”
But critics of blockchain-based voting largely miss the point. While the blockchain may be imperfect, its weaknesses are dwarfed by those of the current system. Furthermore, blockchain technology would solve the two most prominent election concerns (which generally fall along ideological lines): voter access and voter fraud.
For activists worried about voter suppression, a blockchain would allow eligible voters to cast ballots anonymously on their laptop, tablet or phone using an encrypted key. At the same time, the public ledger would tie each ballot to an individual voter, establishing a permanent, immutable record. Fraud would be highly unlikely, and any foul play would either be evident on the ledger or corrected by the peer-to-peer consensus network. In that regard, blockchain-based voting represents a bipartisan win-win proposition.
The trick lies in persuasion and adaptation, as with any major innovation. Estonia, Iceland and Denmark have already implemented blockchain technology in their elections, and companies like Follow My Vote are developing open-source blockchain platforms to increase election security and transparency in the U.S. This past month, Voatz, a Boston-based blockchain startup, earned over $2 million in funding, and it has already been used by 70,000 voters in town halls, budget meetings and other venues.
But real change will only occur through widespread use, and the time for dillydallying is running out.
“We have to come up with a better system,” Smerkis concluded. “Blockchain is that system.”