Blockchain voting: Can it help secure our elections?

The technology-enabled mechanism of trust could make online balloting more realistic.

Video: Could blockchain bring voting online?

Government officials, pundits, and citizens alike have often commented about or bemoan the fact that many elections are plagued by low voter turnout. That's true even for presidential elections in the US.

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Meanwhile, voter fraud or other threats to the integrity of elections are an ongoing problem for election officials.

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Online voting -- as an alternative to paper ballots or electronic voting machines -- has been suggested as a way to not only boost the number of active voters, but possibly even address election security and integrity issues. Might blockchain, a technology that continues to draw attention from technology and business leaders alike, hold the key to making internet voting widespread around the world?

While the concept of blockchain is not necessarily easy to grasp or explain, blockchain voting could see some momentum in the years to come as it's explored for various types of elections. At the very least, election officials, politicians, and vote counters need to be aware of the potential of this new voting mechanism.

What exactly is a blockchain?

First the basics. A blockchain is defined as a "single version of the truth" that's made possible by an immutable and secure time-stamped ledger, copies of which are held by multiple parties.

The method shifts trust in business from an institution/entity to software, and has the potential to allow many assets that are illiquid today tradeable, to let devices to become consumers, and to deliver trust to many aspects of business while reducing or eliminating fraud and counterfeiting.

How the technology works

Within a blockchain mechanism, data is secured via cryptography and new transactions are linked to previous ones. That makes it virtually impossible for anyone to alter older records without first needing to change subsequent ones.

Because multiple systems or "nodes" run the blockchain network, a user would need to gain control of more than half of the nodes in order to make changes. So altering data within transactions or faking an identity would be extremely challenging.

Blockchain and voting

Blockchain could be used to secure voting systems and votes against tampering by those who would try to impact an election. Researchers have been looking into how it might be used to create a verifiable, end-to-end voting infrastructure.

"There have been a number of proposals to use blockchains for voting," said Vipul Goyal, associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University. "It's an active and exciting area of research. Certainly it seems like blockchains bring some missing components to make online voting a reality."

Blockchain could enhance voting integrity and voter confidence, given its ability to secure transactions and ensure traceability "so that every transaction is vetted and there is permanency of record and no ability for a single entity to manipulate the record," said Kevin C. Desouza, professor of business, technology and strategy at QUT Business School, Queensland University of Technology and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Addressing the security issues

With blockchain, there's a level of security and trust that's currently lacking, Desouza said. "As with any system, eventually there will be security issues to contend with," he said. However, "the identity management protocols in blockchain and the authentication protocols make it difficult, but not impossible, to hack."

With blockchain, votes could be verified after the voting is finished, so that officials can be certain that the votes are counted correctly. This can be achieved without the need for a central body overseeing the results.

"In blockchain systems there is no central body, that is the point of the distributed ledger system," Desouza said. "As such, there are multiple records of what represents 'truth' at any given time. Only after transactions are verified and records are trusted are they committed to the ledger."

How blockchain voting would be work

The voter registration process would still need to happen off the chain, Goyal said. "There has to be an authority which determines who can vote and who cannot," he said.

If the authority agency determines that a user is eligible to vote, the user would receive a key or a token. "This is similar to receiving a coin," Goyal said. "This token can then help the user to vote exactly once."

Blockchains will guarantee that a user cannot vote multiple times using the same token. "The mechanism used to prevent this is analogous to the mechanism used to prevent 'double spending' in cryptocurrencies based on blockchains," Goyal said.

The beauty of voting based on blockchain is that it's decentralized. "There is no central agency which must be trusted to conduct the elections fairly and securely," Goyal said. "Anybody can participate and become a node in the system." The nodes will collectively ensure that the system is available throughout the duration of the election, and that the votes are counted correctly.

Early implementations

Blockchain voting is still in its infancy, and hasn't been used in any large-scale open elections, Goyal said. But it has been deployed for some voting processes.

For example, Nasdaq used blockchain for shareholder voting in Estonia. And, earlier this year, West Virginia became the first state to pilot test a blockchain-based platform for mobile voting, using the technology for 2018 primary elections.

There were reports of Sierra Leone using blockchain for its presidential elections. However, the actual use was limited to an external observer engaged for the election that experimented with its own blockchain solution in one of the districts.

Blockchain and the democratic process

Could blockchain voting help ensure the integrity of the democratic process? That might be overstating things a bit. But no doubt there is potential for using the technology to improve voting processes and tighten up security. "Blockchain as a technology is much better than what we have out there today," Desouza said.

As always with technology, some caution is needed. Blockchain "isn't a silver bullet to solve the problem of free and fair voting, which is highly complex," Goyal said. "However I do believe that blockchains bring some key ingredients which were missing in earlier proposals. [It] might just prove to be the key to making online voting a reality."

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