Cybersecurity issues continue to remain one of the hottest topics of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections as the November 8 showdown draws near. And fears have 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, especiailly, is drawing a lot of interest on this front.
Because a blockchain is a distributed ledger of transactions — in other words, the information it records isn’t stored once in a single system but many times across many independent nodes — it could store votes in an immutable and tamper-proof way. Once a vote has been secured and linked with hashing algorithms and stored across thousands, millions, or perhaps one day billions of nodes, modifying it is theoretically impossible and would require a huge amount of resources and computation power that no single party could effectively bring together.
While blockchain was invented with monetary transactions in mind, its characteristics make it an ideal solution to support voting systems and register votes. Its provisions for preventing double spending of digital currencies can also ensure there is no double voting, and its transparency and public availability make it auditable.
To use the digital currency analogy, the blockchain model of voting would issue each voter a “wallet” (a user credential) and a single “coin” (one opportunity to vote) and have them cast their vote by transferring their coin to the wallet of their candidate of choice. Voters can only spend their coin — or cast their vote — once, although they would have the flexibility to change their vote before the deadline.
As for security, the decentralized nature of blockchains and the fact that they have no single point of failure makes them extremely resistant to denial of service attacks and other types of threats that are usually conducted against client/server architectures.
Moreover, blockchain-based voting can eliminate some of the fraud scenarios that are possible in paper-based voting systems, such as switching or replacing ballot boxes with fraudulent ones.
Who are the players?
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 firm’s platform, based on the BitShares blockchain, will enable voters to cast their votes online using a unique voter ID and their private key; they will use webcams and government-issued IDs to authenticate themselves. The system uses cryptography and end-to-end encryption to keep votes anonymous and immutable. A publicly available ledger will make it viable for everyone to directly follow the results as the election unfolds, and at any stage of the voting process, voters will be able to verify their own votes and make sure they haven’t been modified.
Follow My Vote 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.
The system grants users permission to vote through secure digital access keys, and “voting credits” are doled out, which users can “spend” to cast their votes. It preserves voter privacy through encryption and digital signatures.
Counting votes would be as simple as compiling the results of the blockchain.
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, the Liberal Alliance political party chose to use blockchain for its internal voting back in 2014.
Other efforts are in the works around the world. Ukraine-based e-Vox, for example, offers blockchain-based voting services.
Blockchain isn’t yet a perfect solution
While a promising technology, blockchain isn’t infallible and still has a ways to go and obstacles to overcome before it can fully manifest its potential.
For instance, while the blockchain itself is very secure, the private keys and passcodes that ensure the security of user accounts (or wallets) can become a point of compromise if they are lost or if they fall into the hands of malicious users.
Ease of use and convenience can also be a point of contention. Voting must be accessible to an entire nation, not just a tech-savvy minority, so election technology will have to be intuitive and easy to use. The concept of blockchain and private key handling might yet be too much to stomach for many users.
And then there’s the question of government involvement in setting up blockchain voting. The premise of blockchain is that no third party is involved and every user is anonymous. Trying to tie that technology to voting, where identities must be confirmed, could present fundamental problems.
If those obstacles can be overcome, perhaps we’ll eventually move to blockchain voting the same way so many of us have moved to online banking and mobile payments, despite all our fears 20 years ago.
What’s for sure is that the electoral process is lagging far behind technological advances. Sticking to paper-based ballots isn’t the strategic and long-term answer to cyberthreats against the elections. Will blockchain evolve to become the answer?
Ben Dickson is a software engineer and the founder of TechTalks, a blog that explores the ways technology is solving and creating problems. He writes about technology, business and politics. Follow him on Twitter: @BenDee983.