Vote of Confidence: Blockchain Voting
Last week, we devoted “Vote of Confidence” to the “impending crisis” facing the American voting infrastructure. The logical answer to such an article would be a set of solutions or recommendations to avoid this impending crisis. Many such an article was written, especially as we are continually brow-beaten by the security saga following the 2016 Presidential Election. Famous computer scientists, ironically enough, wrote about the need to implement a completely paper-based system. We at Votem, on the other hand, are partial to options that are more forward-looking.
Blockchain recently gained substantial attention as cryptocurrencies (that are based on the technology) surged in value before the end of 2017. Despite its association with cryptocurrencies, blockchain applications extend much further than digital currencies. The goal of this article is to give a brief overview of what the technology has to offer and why voting, in particular, is a perfect use case for its particular characteristics.
Blockchain, put most simply, is a digital ledger. Like an analog ledger, a blockchain is essentially a list of transactions that have been approved. What makes the technology different and gives it the unique potential to disrupt a variety of industries is the fact that blockchain is decentralized and requires consensus from independent parties that don’t trust each other to approve transaction before they are permanently written to the ledger.
When someone sends money to another individual via a banking application, the transaction is vetted and carried out by the bank in question. While it may feel like a direct transfer of funds between the two individuals, in reality the bank is acting as the middleman. In a transaction of Bitcoin, for example, there is no middle man. Instead, there is a massive decentralized network, in this case of millions of different devices, which represent “nodes”. Each node independently verifies that the initiator of the transaction indeed has the bitcoin he says he has and that it has not been spent in another transaction. Once all nodes confirm the transaction, the information is added to a “block.” Series of these blocks of information form chains and are what give “blockchain” its name. Records of transactions in these chains, once added, cannot be altered or deleted, making the information ‘immutable.”
It’s abundantly clear why this technology applies well to the fintech. Removing the middleman and guaranteeing the security and transparency of each transaction are some of the reasons cryptocurrencies are so wildly popular today. For voting, many of the same benefits make blockchain an equally appealing option.
Advocates for paper-based systems make the argument that, only with a physical ballot, can you trace every stage of a vote and keep them secure. From a voter’s perspective, however, once you submit your ballot, there is no way for the individual voter to independently verify that t it was counted correctly as cast. A voter, as many from Florida know too well, can only hope that their ballot is dealt with properly. With a vote cast on a blockchain, voters are able to both maintain their anonymity and track the vote at every stage of its progress.
To increase the transparency of an election, the nodes in the network can correspond to the various parties and observers involved in the election. This way, all parties with a vested interest can guarantee, independently, that each vote is cast and tallied correctly without having to rely on a central system.
Blockchain’s merits extend beyond just added transparency. Dated machines and time consuming processes make voting a costly investment both for our government and for the citizens participating. A report published by the Brennan Center in 2015 estimated that the costs to replace our current systems would cost upwards of $1 billion. Creating a digital system for voting opens the process up to a wider range of people with specific accessibility needs and limits the lofty prices inherent in our current voting system.
Granted, we are a company that has an operational blockchain platform, so it may seem obvious that we are writing about this technology as the best way forward. The reality is, we’re far from the only ones.
However, in the wake of foreign state malfeasance and future threats of interference, there has been a visceral movement away from technological considerations in elections which we believe has caused trust and access suffer as a result. The only path forward is not to abandon technology, but to work with a consortia of vendors, policy-makers and security experts to collectively lay the technological foundation for running elections and take a leadership role in the world.