Blockchain voting

Author: Fook Nederveen, Research assistant, RAND Europe

There is one technology that shows particular promise in providing trust in the legitimacy of electoral processes and results: blockchain. Estonia’s successful implementation of internet voting, over a decade ago, has sparked new interest in using technological solutions to improve democratic elections. Nevertheless, outside of Estonia voters still predominantly exercise their constitutional right to democratically elect their leaders and representatives by paper ballot.

Security concerns remain prevalent when technology is introduced to the electoral process

The Netherlands, for example, which had previously employed electronic voting machines, opted to completely remove them from polling stations about ten years ago. Activists had proven the machines could be hacked in a matter of seconds, demonstrating the weak security of the machines by reprogramming them to play chess. More recently, the evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections has caused distrust towards the use of technology in elections. Broad public confidence in the process and trust in the outcome is imperative, as is engenders “the true measure of an election”, according to (former) UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

However, blockchain might be particularly well suited to address the trust deficit of using technology in elections, either as an online or an offline solution. A blockchain is a database of records spread out over participants, or nodes, in a network. Instead of all parties involved in a transaction making a record of it, the blockchain provides a single distributed ledger that is shared and synchronised with all the nodes in the network.

Since there is no central authorising party, all nodes are equal. A valid transaction cannot take place without consensus across the network, safeguarding against discrepancies between different versions of ledgers, illegitimate changes to transactions or taking control of the entire system. Therefore, the blockchain provides a ‘single source of truth’.

Blockchain was first introduced as the technology underlying the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. Bitcoin is built on a completely decentralised ‘public’ blockchain that anyone can join. This decentralisation is key to the disruptive potential of the technology, as it removes the need for a central party, such as a bank. Although increased transparency would be an improvement to democratic elections, complete openness would not. It needs to be impossible to trace back a vote to the identity of the voter. Voting by secret ballot is a fundamental principle of electoral law.

One way to solve this would be to cryptographically hash identities, which only the voter would be able to decipher. Even more limits can be set in what is called a ‘permissioned blockchain’, e.g. who can join and read the blockchain and who is allowed to become a ‘miner’. Miners service the network by becoming a node. In fact, mining can even be disallowed altogether. To guarantee equal suffrage, only the eligible voters should be allowed to vote. One way how this could be achieved is by making every vote a ‘smart contract’. Each registered voter can only use his or her own smart contract, and only during the time period set for the elections.

Once the process is completed, the ‘transaction’ is irreversible and the information becomes a new block on the chain with its own unique hash; the vote is cast. The nodes in the network will authenticate the new block. If the information inside the block would be changed, the hash would change and, therefore, be rejected.

The immutability of the records in a blockchain offers some clear advantages to the voting process. Above all, it increases the integrity of the results and, hence, the voters’ trust in the voting process. On top of that, blockchain technology complicates fraud, prevents electoral disputes, removes room for human error, speeds up the process and offers efficiency gains. Changes can only be made by consensus, making a successful cyberattack incredibly complex and costly. After all, each ‘block’ must follow from the previous block in the chain.

As maintenance of the registry is decentralised, it also protects against internal threats, such as corrupt authorities in charge of organising the elections. The transparent nature of the technology further instils confidence in the legitimacy of the outcome. Voters have access to a clear record of the votes, allowing them to scrutinise the results and to verify their vote.

Technological, societal and governance barriers must be overcome

In spite of the apparent benefits, there are several serious technological, societal and governance barriers to be overcome before blockchain voting can be adopted in general elections. Firstly, due to the importance of voting, it should be free of major security fears. Although blockchain promises immutability of the votes, other issues are bound to be raised when new technologies are introduced to the voting process. Secondly, the public’s trust cannot be won by simply emphasising blockchain’s immutability. Some parts of the population might not be comfortable using the system without comprehending how the technology works.

Overcoming these challenges will take time. Confidence in the technology could be established by proving its merits in small-scale, less risk-averse environments before making the jump to general elections. Some successful initiatives have already been introduced, e.g. in Nasdaq’s Tallinn exchange, in Abu Dhabi’s Securities Exchange and in the primaries of the Republican Party in Utah. Another experiment with blockchain voting was held by a non-profit organisation among expats from Colombia, who were not allowed to vote from abroad, in the 2016 Peace plebiscite. The vote was purely symbolic, but technologically it was considered a success.

Blockchain will not revolutionise voting immediately since it will not happen fast. The technology has been around for 10 years now and the development of blockchain voting has been a very slow moving process. Even if blockchain matures and proves to be an asset to elections by delivering what it promises, mass adoption might never happen. An alternative to voting by paper ballot, rather than a replacement, seems a more likely outcome at this point. It could also be used as a new way of validating the results, scanning the voters’ ballots and registering them onto the blockchain before putting it in the ballot box.

Mounting public and private interest in blockchain will take it forward and time will tell if the technology’s potential will ever be unlocked to bolster the electoral process.

Footnote:

Blockchain voting is a form of electronic voting that can happen both physically at a polling station and online. Internet voting comes with a myriad of (security) challenges of its own, which are outside the scope of this article.