Blockchain technology might hold the key for a free and fair election as Corona Virus threatens access to ballot boxes.
Seeing Donald Trump lambasting the press, an abundance of MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats on television and over-the-top political advertising should be a sign that the United States is heading full throttle towards a presidential election. Yet, due to concern about Corona Virus, it is all but certain that the next election, scheduled for November 2020, will be able to take place in its traditional form.
US’ Waking Electoral Crisis
Talking with CNN on March 29th, Matthew Peterson, who has been on the electoral commission for over a decade, believes “we don’t know what the future holds” and claims that “If the virus is still widely spreading this fall, then casting ballots in crowded polling places, operated primarily by elderly and vulnerable poll workers, really creates a perfect storm for the virus to continue spreading.”
So, what choice does the United States have, if Corona Virus does last until the November presidentials? Cancel the election? This is an option as disagreeable as a business as usual policy. CNN electoral historian Douglas Brinkley says: “if we can vote in the Middle of the Civil War… then we can figure out how to make 2020 a free and fair election”. Speaking with US journalists, Democrat candidate Joe Biden, was similarly adamant that the ‘show must go on’. He said that America will “has to use different means and methods” to ensure that the election takes place, and emphasised that there are already remote voting solutions which just need wider implementation.
Email and Postal Vote Are Not Working Models
At present, remote voting methods are exclusive for overseas citizens covered by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. In many states, for example, military citizens and overseas citizens who do not generally have access to their local ballot box are able to request a vote by email, internet portal or postal vote.
As suggested by Biden, one option for the election is simply to extend current remote voting procedures to all citizens. However, the current solutions have poor track records. For example, following hacks into their online electoral voting system in 2016, Alaska was urged to suspend their digital voting portal.
Moreover, the turnout for voters eligible for email or postal vote is notably low. In 2014, for example, the national voter turnout for eligible overseas voters was only 4%, partly owing to emails being ‘lost’ and compromised.
The Advantages of Blockchain Integrated Mobile Voting
If the US wants to enable remote voting for the 2020 presidential election, mobile apps with blockchain integration, according to some industry experts, are probably a far more reliable voting medium than the current methods; seeming to promise higher voter turnout as well as better anonymity and security. Will Groah, executive director of Cloudocracy and COO of the Government Blockchain Association claims current solutions “provide at least some level of citizens exercising their voting rights, however, they are known to be insecure, imperfect, and prone to tampering.”
Unlike current solutions, blockchain can “eliminate the distrust that hangs in the electronic voting machines and in the smoothness of the electoral process” says Tatiana Revoredo, one of the founding members of the Oxford Blockchain Foundation.
Blockchain Voting Is More Secure
When a vote is made during blockchain voting, the voter ID and selection is encrypted and then stored on the blockchain. The blockchain is a ledger or database held on multiple devices that simultaneously power the network. By having the voting data distributed to more than one device and often powered by different servers, it is less likely to be compromised. In order for a malicious change of voter data to be made, it must be validated by the majority of devices.
For example, whenever a vote is made using the blockchain mobile voting app VOATZ, which is the first Blockchain voting app to be used in US political elections, the backend of the app stores the information on the 32 separate nodes that make-up the blockchain. As a result, at least 17 of these devices would need to be compromised for the voting data on the blockchain to be compromised. These nodes are hosted in different geographical areas as well as spread across Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure servers, making it very difficult for this to happen.
Conversely, internet portals, which as the Alaska case showed can be insecure, are often only powered by only one server.
Blockchain Makes Voting Data Auditable
With e-mail and postal voting methods there is no guarantee that the vote you have made is accurately counting towards the election result. In-fact, in the case of email voting there is a significant possibility that it will not even be delivered at all. Worryingly, according to the research group Return Pat, less than 70% of emails actually get delivered to their target address.
Speaking with Crypto A.M, Pete Martin, founder and CEO of Votem, a blockchain-based mobile voting company, argued that the crux of the current issue is the fact that “in all of those [current] voting mediums, an individual voter cannot confirm that their vote was counted as they cast it”.
Blockchain solutions, however, enable individuals to confirm that their vote has been counted by retrospectively checking blockchain data. With VOATZ, a receipt of the voter’s submission to the blockchain is sent to both the voter and the elections administrator and stored locally as a paper copy. The receipt, with the voter’s encrypted ID and vote choice attached, can be checked against the openly available blockchain by the voter and the authorities. By doing this, the voter and the electoral authorities can confirm the delivery of their anonymous vote; and, If their submission is not added to the blockchain, the app, the electoral authorities and the voter know that this vote should be allowed to be recast.
How Likely Is It That Blockchain Voting Will Be Implemented By November?
Despite the merits of blockchain voting technology, according to Pete Martin, “there is virtually no chance this will be in place for the general public in November”. When asked why, he said: “there are too many legislative hurdles and too much fear-mongering and logistical challenges to overcome.”
Amelia Gardner, who was one of the first US officials to implement blockchain voting, as part of a VOATZ pilot study in her home-town Utah County, described a growth of skepticism, claiming: “In most areas, people are so concerned about hacking and security that they allow the ‘perfect’ to become the enemy of the “good’”.
Despite the skepticism and the legislative hurdles blockchain faces, specialists are adamant that they have the capability: Pete Martin stressed that technology necessary to work with state populations is available, claiming that his own app, Votem, “has a proven solution that has tallied over 10 million votes that could be tested, improved and subsequently deployed by November”.
Luke Whelan in conversation with James Bowater. Luke is a professional writer who prefers to focus on the social and political impact of new technologies. He has featured on Bitcoinist, Crypto Daily and Cryptoknowmics and recently graduated from The University of Nottingham after studying Politics. Follow him on linkedin or Twitter
Image credit: Phill Snelling, Bowater Media © 2020