Democratic election is a serious and critical event for a country. Through voting, citizens have the power to influence the quality of life they want for themselves and future generations, with the election becoming a turning point on the way towards protection and enjoyment of human rights, and the improvement of the well-being of the society.
With the most common way to conduct an election by the use of a paper-based system, the world has witnessed several electoral frauds, where corrupt politicians use illegal and clandestine methods to manipulate election results. Such frauds undermine democratic stability and encourage opponents to discredit election outcomes, resulting in a waste of the country’s resources.
A record number of voters cast their ballots earlier in November, during the United States presidential election, using in-person presence or mail. Since every American state has different rules for mail-in voting, the process became chaotic. There have also been loopholes for disputes and significant delays as mailed votes take time to get processed.
In the US, 32 states allow some form of online voting using email, for a small section of voters. In the previous election held in 2016, over 100,000 votes were cast online, as per data, though the actual count might be higher.
The current President of the US, Donald Trump, encouraged in-person voting, claiming it to be “secure,” as opposed to mail-in voting, which could be falsified easily. The 2020 US presidential election has intensified the beliefs about drawbacks of mail-in ballots. Trump also tweeted about the inaccuracy of the results, which was partly hidden by Twitter.
Thus, it is time to look into alternative technologies that can facilitate the voting process. For a long time, there has been a misconception that a secure way of voting online does not exist. With the advent of blockchain technology, these discussions have started surfacing again. But is blockchain a solution?
Digital voting utilizes electronic devices like a voting machine — e-voting — or a computer through an Internet browser — i-voting — to cast votes. However, before implementing a digital voting system for large scale election, security is an important criterion that needs to be taken into account. With monumental decisions at stake, there should not be a shred of doubt about the voting system’s capability to defend the data against potential attacks.
Blockchain-based voting systems as a solution
Though a large scale blockchain-based system is yet to be implemented for voting, there are several propositions for the same. A recent paper dubbed “Voting over a distributed ledger: an interdisciplinary perspective” written by a group of British academics suggests a high-level design for a blockchain based voting system. The design recommends that a voter could initially connect with a blockchain node and use the same to submit their vote that would work as a blockchain transaction.
This vote could then be forwarded to the network of nodes to be part of the unconfirmed transaction pool of votes. Every new block will include a set of vote transactions and will be sent to each node on the network. Due to multiple node networks present on a blockchain, several interfaces can connect to the same blockchain, allowing users to access it using their own devices.
Startups like Voatz claim to have simplified voting with the use of blockchain technology. Users can download a dedicated app, verify their government ID, scan their fingerprint or use facial recognition, and can cast their vote. Once the vote is casted, it can also be backed with a paper copy.
The startup outlined that if all citizens had an accessible method of voting remotely such as mobile voting, it would ensure more equal and fair election. According to Voatz’s analysis, if voters with disabilities voted at the same rate as other citizens, there would be 2.35 million more voters, and with barriers removed, the voter turnout rate of deployed military and overseas voters would increase to 37.5 per cent from the current 7 per cent.
A similar platform was developed and introduced by blockchain startup Votem back in 2017. After signing up to the voting app, users are linked to a list of verification documents to verify their identity. When votes are cast, the node counts the vote instantaneously.
A new way to cast votes
Blockchain indeed brings certain advantages that could be leveraged to build a secure voting solution. This could potentially introduce a new way for common people to cast their votes without relying on the traditional mail-in system.
Transparency is a key requirement for a fair voting mechanism to ensure that people are not discouraged from casting their votes. It further helps avoid questions relating to tampering and falsification of votes. According to hardware wallet manufacturer Ledger:
“[…] due to its immutable nature – keep in mind that everything recorded in a blockchain cannot be modified – blockchain provides a tamper-free and transparent record. It allows regulators to simultaneously monitor all votes and be alerted if something was amiss in the network.”
Blockchain’s smart contract capability allows to maintain the level of transparency, which cannot be achieved with a centralized system.
Another major requirement here is the anonymity of voters’ personal information. Though it is essential to ensure that every vote is counted, sharing of candidate information is against most voting systems. A blockchain-based voting system can address vote anonymity better than a paper ballot system, where secrecy is simply maintained by preventing any ID of the voter on the ballot.
This might be a great challenge in a centralized digital system as a voter would have to log in using a valid ID issued by the election authority to maintain authenticity of the voting process and avoid fraud and tampering of votes. Since the system is centralized, the user’s ID will be registered on a central database which can be accessed by election authorities to ascertain the candidate that each individual has voted for. However, the use of blockchain can leverage encryption techniques to add votes to the system. These encrypted votes can be counted without the need for decryption, thus ensuring anonymity.
The paper-based voting system takes a long time to process the votes, especially since polling booths and offices are in different locations. In the recent US presidential election, this is being used as an excuse for potential fraud.
If blockchain is used to process the votes, the possibility of fraud or misconduct could be reduced significantly, and results can be obtained in real-time. The key factor in blockchain that contributes to reduction of fraud is the elimination of central authorities or middle-men, who can manipulate the results.
Limitations hindering blockchain-based voting systems adoption
Though blockchain has several benefits, some limitations can hinder its adoption as a full-proof way for running fair election.
The use of a blockchain-based system requires public access to ensure that everyone can check the data for transparency. If the system is not decentralized and is owned by a single company or government entity, data could be manipulated and go undetected.
For a voter to connect to a blockchain node, a user interface is required. This could lead to malicious entities that could mimic interfaces to steal votes before they get added to the blockchain.
Other issues about blockchain-based voting include malware installed on voters’ devices, server penetration attacks, DDoS attacks, and other disruptions, with the intent to infect voters’ devices.
Election security has been a highlight during recent elections, especially considering the classified briefings held by Congress to address the country’s cyber infrastructure and its capability to defend against threats.
During the Belarus presidential election earlier this year, results were reportedly falsified and people came out to protest, which soon turned into a chaos when the demonstrators and security forces clashed. Similar events occured in Kyrgyzstan, when the opposition government and people claimed the parliamentary election results to be rigged.
In the past, there have been instances of hackers being backed by foreign governments who allegedly targeted voting processes in countries. Thus, moving voting to a completely digital system could apparently allow hackers to fully exploit any technical loophole to hijack the system. Using blockchain doesn’t make a voter’s device — be it a computer or smartphone — secure by default. Even if blockchain can record a vote securely, it’s moot if it wasn’t cast correctly.
Although voters can have strong confidence that their ballot is recorded and will not be removed or changed, some industry experts like Tomasz Truderung of the online voting project POLYAS questioned the efficiency of voting on blockchain, at this point. However, he noted that “the progress that is being made in the field is very exciting and we are closely watching how things evolve.”