Decentralized Voting -The Promise and the Peril

Vote ballet box

Ask anyone, anywhere along the political spectrum, and they’ll probably express at least some sort of anxiety about the state of elections. It’s not just headlines about the integrity of US Presidential elections but a pervasive sense that some of our most important decisions are unmoored from our collective will. Whether it’s a malicious foreign hacker, a corrupt elections official, or just an incompetent coder behind the vote counting software, there are an increasing number of bogeymen challenging the notion of fully reliable elections.

But votes are, in essence, just pieces of information, and blockchain presents a very attractive platform for securing information. It can offer transparency, which is essential in an elections platform, and it can be secured against tampering even by those running the system itself. It seems to be the perfect elections platform, but can it compete with paper, the original killer elections app?

In this post, we’ll go into how the blockchain could assist in voting, and how it could undermine the process. Why did West Virginia decide to test a blockchain voting initiative? Just as well to ask, why did it decide not to expand the program, after that test?

Blockchain Voting is Not the Same as Online Voting
First off, blockchain-based voting is often misunderstood as being identical to “at-home online voting,” but it’s really quite distinct. Blockchain voting only really refers to the idea of logging votes via the blockchain, which can still require that votes be collected via official polling stations. Votes can even be collected via paper punch-card as is tradition, so long as the final vote-counts are reported directly to a blockchain when collected.

At-home voting is plagued by a number of potential problems that have little to do with the software technology that secures the votes, once cast. Online voting presents problems with voter coercion, as without the institution of the voting booth it becomes possible to watch people vote. Whether in the workplace or the family home, that sort of oversight can and will affect people’s voting behavior. Estonia conducted an online national election, and mitigated this by allowing people to vote as many times as they want, with only their latest vote being counted. This allows people to vote once at work, in front of the boss, and again when they get home, over-writing this coerced support.

Still, the main problem with online voting is not the security of vote-casting, but the security of vote-transmission and -counting. And the safe transmission and storage of data is what blockchain does best.

3 online voting screens

The Blockchain as Elections Platform

Even with all the caveats, blockchain voting could be revolutionary. Each vote cast could be transmitted as a secure token transfer, or the transmitted unit of information could be the final count from each polling station. With both encryption and transparency preventing tampering with votes after they’re collected, this could fundamentally change the public’s trust in the results of elections.

But remember that the vast majority of existing complaints about elections security have to do with the collection of votes, not their transmission or storage, and collection happens before blockchain’s networking abilities become relevant. Whether it’s foreign hackers, politically corrupt elections officers, or domestic non-citizen voters, all the most feared ways of influencing an election crop up before blochain’s role even begins. Blockchain is not a user interface for vote collection, and it will never be able to address certain concerns about the integrity of votes.

The danger of security technologies like blockchain is that they can give people the impression that they are under a lesser threat than they truly are. If we ever do implement truly online voting -- away from polling stations -- blockchain can be a helpful tool to ensure that votes remain anonymous and to prevent tampering after votes are cast. However, if the problems inherent to online voting do crop up, then blockchain’s ability to make online voting more achievable could actually decrease overall elections security, in the long run.

But the big advantage of blockchain voting isn’t actually security. With trustworthy anonymization, it would be possible for votes to come with metadata about the voter, both mandatory data like the polling station and voluntarily submitted information like age and sex. This would allow elections to become much better-attuned to the will of actual voters, as the dynamics of who votes for what, and why, would become much more clear. Smart contracts could also automatically trigger certain actions, like mandatory recounts by human voting officers in the event of a decision that’s too close to call. They could allow secured identity checks that remove ambiguity about identity and the right to vote, and end controversy over voter registration.

Elections are an ancient tradition, dating back to chips of wood and stone dropped into bags -- but there’s no need for the tradition to remain so feature-poor, in the digital age.

Paper Has Been Bug-Checked for Hundreds of Years

There are some very real upsides to paper ballots.

For one, they physically exist. This means that at any point, up to an agreed-upon number of months or years after a result, someone can go back and recount ballots. This still leaves the door open for falsified ballots in the first place, but this presents challenges of its own, since paper-punching thousands or tens of thousands of physical cards is much more difficult than changing tens of thousands of digital votes via cyber-attack.

Paper ballots with “chads” punched out also show a trace in the case of multiple voting on the same card, making it much harder to change a vote after it’s been cast. Digital records can theoretically be replaced on their way to registration on the blockchain, so that the change completely overwrites the original vote and hides the fact that the vote was recast.

The reality is that while blockchain solves some of the problems with elections integrity, it does not solve all of them. What’s been shown time and again in the past is that any system subject to as much pressure and meddling as elections, with so much money being spent to subvert them, will spawn all-new hacks and strategies for falsifying results. Blockchain won’t change that, it will simply push the ecosystem of hackers and counter-hackers to become even more advanced than it already is.

If the blockchain acts as a means to shore up some aspects of elections while remaining cognizant of the weaknesses that remain, then it will be an unequivocal good. However if blockchain serves as nothing more than catharsis for a population that so badly wants to believe in the integrity of its elections, if it leads people to relax their standards for elections security rather than strengthen them, then it could do far more harm than good.