Featured: Further Decentralizing Democracy with Blockchain for Voting

As blockchain technology moves into new spaces, politics is the space where it is heavily speculated to make a difference, but is blockchain the answer?

Election tampering is a huge concern across the world. Election fraud and election tampering directly undermine the foundation of democracy. The vast majority of us want to live in a society where we get to contribute to the laws that govern us and to get a say in the people who make those laws. Allegations of fraud were rife in the 2016 US elections.

Western countries already have an issue with voter turnout. In the 2016 US elections voter turnout dipped to nearly its lowest point in two decades, only 58.1% of the voting eligible population voted. This put the US at rank 28 out of 35 highly developed countries for voter turnout. This isn’t only a problem for the US, but for the UK and much of Europe. The question of why people are choosing not to vote is a complex one. If you were to ask many of those non-voters whether they like their country, whether they want to live in a democracy and whether they think the right to vote is a good idea, they would likely say yes. So why don’t they vote?

One of the major reasons is mistrust in the system. People often find that they don’t trust or relate to politicians and are suspicious of their motives. This mistrust runs deep. If you can’t trust the politicians and you don’t trust the government, then are you going to trust that your vote was counted accurately? A lot of countries still hire people to hand read the voting ballots, such as the UK. This obviously invokes worries of human error or human bias; after all, the people counting are voters too. In the US, votes are often counted by an electronic voting machine. This is of course more impartial, but people still worry that the machine might make an error.

This is one of the reasons that governments around the world are now piloting blockchain-based voting systems. There have already been examples of these systems being trialed or incorporated, and the movement does seem to be picking up. However, this isn’t something that will happen overnight. Changing the voting system needs to be handled carefully even if the advantages it will provide over the previous system will make you want to rush.

Nimo Naaman of blockchain company Horizon State said on the topic:

“Elections are the heart of democracy. Any government or electoral committee is going to take their job very seriously when it comes to changing the way elections are carried out.

“The two governments I have discussed general elections on the blockchain with – one said it is interesting but they do not want to be the first.

“They also mentioned that cost is not much of an issue for them, but transparency and accountability are paramount.

“The second government – they are very much actively thinking about it, and I think they will definitely have an election running on the blockchain in the next 4 years.”

This goes to show that even though there is a definite interest in a blockchain voting system, there is still a high degree of caution. This makes sense, of course, if trust and transparency are the emotions you want to foster in your voting system, then this needs to be handled delicately. If a government was to implement a system that ultimately failed, that trust would be lost and it would take a long time to rebuild.

Bettina Warburg gave a TED Talks speech in 2016 which is now the most watched TED talk about blockchain.

“While blockchain technology is relatively new, it’s also a continuation of a very human story. As our societies grew more complex and our trade routes grew more distant, we built up more formal institutions, institutions like banks for currency, governments, corporations.

“These institutions helped us manage our trade as the uncertainty and the complexity grew, and our personal control was much lower. Eventually, with the internet, we put these same institutions online.

“We are now entering a further and radical evolution of how we interact and trade, because for the first time, we can lower uncertainty not just with political and economic institutions, like our banks, our corporations, our governments, but we can do it with technology alone.

And that is what blockchain is all about, lowering uncertainty. A blockchain voting system would offer security and transparency, and the record of votes would be immutable. The privacy of the voters can also be upheld due to the anonymous nature of transactions along the blockchain. A blockchain voting system would be as such that voters can fully trust in it.

Kaspersky Lab has developed a blockchain-based secure online voting system called Polys. Their website explains:

“[Online] voting imposes extremely stringent requirements on the security of every aspect of voting. We believe that the blockchain technology is the missing link in the architecture of a viable online voting system.”

Most people would agree that the current voting system is outdated and nearing not fit for the modern world. We now live in a world where we can do pretty much everything online, we do our banking online, we get out entertainment online, we can book our appointments online, hold our meetings online, and the list goes on. It almost seems jarring in 2019 that we can’t vote online. The vast majority of the public would now find it easier to vote online than to turn up to a polling station.

A blockchain voting system would be preferable over any other kind of voting system, purely for security reasons. Since blockchain is a distributed ledger operating on multiple computer nodes, any changes made to the chain will be made to the entire ledger. This is what’s known as a decentralized system, and it makes a blockchain system virtually impossible to hack.

Examples of Blockchain for Voting

In the 2018 US midterm elections, a blockchain-based mobile voting platform was available to use by a a select group of voters in West Virginia. The system was created by Voatz and:

“Uses biometric authentication to identify individual users before allowing them to mark an electronic ballot, and the votes are then recorded in a private blockchain.”

Mike Queen, communications director for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, said:

“[The office of the Secretary believes] blockchain does provide a heightened level of security on this type of mobile voting app. We’re genuinely hoping that will allow this type of a mobile app to be made available in the future – as early perhaps as our general election – to military voters.”

In September 2018 it was also reported that a Japanese city was trialing blockchain voting for social development programs. Later in December, South Korea shared similar news, that they are trialing a blockchain voting system. Sierra Leone also employed blockchain technology in tallying its presidential elections in 2018, alongside traditional tallying.

It is too soon to say how quickly blockchain voting will take hold or what obstacles it will face. Whatever the solution is, it needs to be transparency, secure and respect voter privacy.