Cyber-security issues continue to remain one of the hottest topics during presidential elections, as fears have often been raised that domestic or foreign actors could try to skew the results of the election. While many see a solution in dumping all forms of electronic voting and defaulting back to offline, paper-based systems — especially as
Cyber-security issues continue to remain one of the hottest topics during presidential elections, as fears have often been raised that domestic or foreign actors could try to skew the results of the election.
While many see a solution in dumping all forms of electronic voting and defaulting back to offline, paper-based systems — especially as electronic voting machines have proven to be extremely vulnerable — others are hoping new technologies can make elections more secure. Blockchain technology, especially, is drawing a lot of interest on this front.
Many blockchains currently exist, and a number of these could serve as possible platforms for voting services. Follow My Vote is a Virginia-based startup hoping to move people toward blockchain-based voting. The startup will be testing its platform in a mock online election that will run in parallel with the U.S. presidential election.
There’s also NYC-based Blockchain Technologies Corp., which is taking a hybrid approach of a blockchain-powered voting system coupled with paper ballots that use QR codes to ensure each vote is only cast once.
But we’re seeing more movement in blockchain voting outside the U.S.
The government-owned Australian Post service, for example, is using blockchain technology to create a location agnostic, tamper-proof voting system that is traceable and anonymous, and would prove to be resilient against denial of service attacks. For the moment, the service is testing the waters with corporate and community elections, but the directors of the project hope to one day be able to handle full parliamentary elections.
Russia’s central securities depository, NSD, is also dabbling in blockchain with a fully functional e-proxy voting system, a ledger on which voting instructions are transmitted and counted. The technology has already been used at bondholder meetings and will be extended to other business areas of the NSD.
Another country looking to leverage blockchain technology for voting is Estonia, which is already a leader in politics technology with its e-residency program, an electronic identity platform that enables foreigners to do business and access government services. The country is now complementing previous efforts with a blockchain-based e-voting system that enables both Estonian nationals and e-residents to securely vote in company shareholder meetings.
Blockchain voting is also making its debut in the Middle East at Abu Dhabi’s Stock Exchange, which just this week announced it has started using blockchain to enable stakeholders to participate and observe votes in their general annual meetings, and in Denmark, where the Liberal Alliance political party chose to use blockchain for its internal voting back in 2014.
Other efforts are in the works in the rest of the World, such as in Ukraine, as it has lately been announced by the media.
E-voting could take many forms: using the internet or a dedicated, isolated network; requiring voters to attend a polling station or allowing unsupervised voting; using existing devices, such as mobile phones and laptops, or requiring specialist equipment. Now we have a further choice; to continue trusting central authorities to manage elections or to use blockchain technology to distribute an open voting record among citizens. Many experts agree that e-voting would require revolutionary developments in security systems. The debate is whether blockchain will represent a transformative or merely incremental development, and what its implications could be for the future of democracy.
The blockchain protocol is a means of logging and verifying records that is transparent and distributed among users. Usually, votes are recorded, managed, counted and checked by a central authority. Blockchain-enabled e-voting (BEV) would empower voters to do these tasks themselves, by allowing them to hold a copy of the voting record. The historic record could then not be changed because other voters would see that the record differs from theirs.
Illegitimate votes could not be added, because other voters would be able to scrutinize whether votes were compatible with the rules (perhaps because they have already been counted or are not associated with a valid voter record). BEV would shift power and trust away from central actors, such as electoral authorities, and foster the development of a tech-enabled community consensus.
One way of developing BEV systems for e-voting is to create a new, bespoke system, designed to reflect the specific characteristics of the election and electorate. A second approach that may be cheaper and easier is to ‘piggyback’, running the election on a more established blockchain, such as that used by the virtual currency, Bitcoin, thus ensuring a wide user base to start with and extremely high engagement of the people.
Blockchain experts are discussing a new generation of ‘techno-democratic systems’, and we can already see the emergence of virtual equivalents of national administrations, based upon blockchain technology. However, in the near term, BEV’s strongest potential may be in organizational rather than national contexts. Indeed, they have been used for the internal elections of political parties, and shareholder votes in Estonia.
Taking the concept a step further, BEV could be combined with smart contracts, to automatically act under certain agreed conditions. Here, for example, election results could trigger the automatic implementation of manifesto promises, investment choices or other organizational decisions.
The more optimistic promises of e-voting should however be read with some skepticism:
- Coercion is a threat for any voting system that offers remote participation (e.g. postal votes). For both BEV and paper elections, the use of private polling booths is the only guarantee against fraud.
- Accessibility to all voters is a key concern in all elections. BEV could complicate matters by presenting citizens with too many options. For example, they might have the choice of whether to vote at a terminal in a traditional booth or use a personal device. There may be different interfaces for citizens who wish to go beyond casting votes and also exercise their right to access data and check that the correct procedures have been followed.
- Anonymity is often considered a crucial element of democratic participation, although most national elections are in fact ‘pseudonymous’. This means that it is not easy to discover how individuals voted, but it is possible because a code links each ballot paper with a personal entry on the electoral register. We are forced to trust the authorities to protect our anonymity. BEV is also pseudonymous, so it may sometimes be possible to discover how an individual voted.
- Another key question is how to ensure widespread trust in the security and legitimacy of the system. As with paper-based elections, it is not enough for the result to be fair and valid. The whole electorate, even if they are disappointed with the result, must accept that the process was legitimate and reliable. As such, beyond providing actual security and accuracy, BEV must also inspire broad public confidence and trust. Because the Blockchain protocol is quite complicated, this may be a barrier to mainstream public acceptability of BEV.
In assessing the potential impact of BEV, we must consider the values and politics it reflects. BEV does not just digitize the traditional voting process; it proposes an alternative with a different set of values and political basis. The process is managed by the people and it is transparent, decentralized and bottom-up.
In this light, it is not surprising that links are drawn between BEV and transitions towards a more direct, decentralized and bottom-up democracy. As such, the extent to which Blockchain technology will flourish in the area of e-voting may depend upon the extent to which it can reflect the values and structure of society, politics and democracy.
Finally, it must be remarked that smart contracts on Blockchain put transactions on autopilot. True believers want them to do away entirely with intermediaries, like governments in the specific case of e-voting, but they should be careful what they wish for. If smart contracts spread widely, much of the flexibility that smooths the functioning of the economy would be taken away, since real-world institutions can adjust when things go wrong.
In fact, for now, the only aspect in which human intervention surpasses bug-ridden code is that of relentlessness, representing one of the biggest obstacles of the application of technology to the real world.
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