In 2021, Sergei Shpilkin, a Russian researcher known for his in-depth examination of previous elections, showed that fraud played a significant role in the 2021 State Duma election, leading to the dominant United Russia party’s victory. On a smaller scale, a federal jury in Sioux City, Iowa, found a woman guilty of fraudulently using absentee ballots to support her husband’s campaign for a congressional seat during the 2020 Iowa primary and general elections. Could blockchain voting have prevented these abuses in the first place?
Individual donors and lobbying interests spend billions to influence election outcomes. Governments spend many more billions facilitating in-person voting with paper ballots at set locations. While election fraud rates vary based on the country, fraud is a persistent drag on the democratic process. Successfully stealing elections has a ripple effect extending far beyond election day.
In today’s interconnected and increasingly polarized world, the quest for a more secure, transparent, and efficient electoral process is more pressing than ever. Blockchain voting technology, with its inherent security, efficiency, transparency, and resistance to tampering, has the potential to revolutionize voting systems worldwide.
On the other hand, blockchain has some technological hurdles to overcome. No solution is perfect; even if it were, some voters and stakeholders may never trust a digital vote. Others may resist blockchain because they benefit from the inefficiencies in the current voting system. Blockchain voting would undermine a shady election strategy or make their job obsolete.
So, does blockchain voting present more risk than reward? Let’s look at the pros and cons of blockchain voting.
Table of Contents
Current Electoral Challenges: Voter Fraud, Access, and Inefficiencies
The Russian election-rigging machine and a small-town woman in Iowa are just two examples of thousands of modern electoral processes worldwide, undermined by a variety of issues that damage their integrity and efficiency.
As voting scales, so do opportunities for fraud. Modern societies still struggle to run fair and accurate elections, especially in populous countries. Here are the main risks to fair and accurate elections:
- Voter fraud: Voter fraud, though statistically rare, is still a significant concern, especially in the Global South and countries like Russia or Venezuela with authoritarian governments and weak democratic guardrails.
- Voting Access: Access to voting is another critical issue, with many voters, especially those with disabilities, overseas or in remote or underserved areas, facing substantial obstacles to casting their ballots.
- Inefficient legacy systems: Inefficiency plagues existing systems, riddled with inefficiencies, including slow vote counting, which leads to delayed results and increased mistrust among the electorate.
Blockchain can’t fix all the issues with elections. Plenty of opportunities exist to tamper with an election before voting day, such as vote buying, hacks, misinformation campaigns, and fake news. Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, according to the findings of a US Senate Intelligence Committee’s August 18, 2020 report, had a significant influence on the outcome.
However, blockchain can strengthen weak links and eliminate specific windows for fraud. Let’s look at how blockchain can help on voting day.
Blockchain Solutions: Enhancing Electoral Integrity
Blockchain technology has inherent characteristics that can significantly mitigate the risk of voter fraud. The immutability of blockchain ensures that once a voter casts their vote, no one can alter or tamper with it without detection. This feature and the technology’s ability to create secure, verifiable voter identities can significantly reduce fraudulent activities.
Blockchain can also increase access to voting. By enabling secure online voting platforms, blockchain can facilitate remote voting, making the process more accessible to people who cannot physically reach polling stations.
This technology also promises to streamline electoral processes, ensuring faster and more accurate vote counting, thereby enhancing the overall efficiency of elections.
Potential Risks with Blockchain Voting
Despite its potential, the application of blockchain in voting systems is challenging. Concerns about the security of online voting, the risk of hacking, and the digital divide are significant hurdles.
Ensuring the security of voting systems is paramount, requiring continuous advancements in cryptographic techniques and robust cybersecurity measures. Additionally, to bridge the digital divide, it is crucial to ensure that all voters have equal access to the necessary technology and digital literacy.
Implementing blockchain voting for cities and states involves cost and environmental impact considerations, which can vary based on the technology used. Here is a breakdown of the challenges:
Cost Considerations: The investment in deploying blockchain-based voting systems can be significant. Costs include developing or purchasing the voting platform, ensuring robust cybersecurity measures, and educating election officials and voters. Depending on the scale and the technology used, this can be expensive for cities and states, especially if it requires significant changes to existing voting infrastructure or ongoing operational costs.
Environmental Impact: The environmental impact of blockchain systems largely depends on the consensus mechanism they use. Traditional blockchain networks like Bitcoin, which use a Proof of Work (PoW) consensus mechanism, are known for their high energy consumption.
Many modern blockchain platforms, especially those for voting applications, use more energy-efficient mechanisms. For example, the blockchain voting app Voatz uses a Permissioned Blockchain, which is more energy-efficient than public blockchains using Proof of Work (PoW).
Permissioned blockchains that utilize Proof of Stake (PoS) or other alternatives to PoW consensus mechanisms require significantly less computational power and thus have a smaller environmental footprint.
Scalability: One of the challenges with blockchain technology is scalability, especially for large-scale applications like state or national elections. Ensuring the system can handle millions of votes simultaneously without compromising speed or security is crucial.
Advanced blockchain systems are continually evolving to address these scalability issues. For instance, Ethereum transitioned from PoW to PoS with its Ethereum 2.0 upgrade. PoS can handle more transactions per second, making it more suitable for applications like voting, where speed and scalability are crucial.
Some blockchain voting applications use sidechains or off-chain solutions to increase scalability. These solutions involve processing transactions off the main blockchain and then recording aggregated results on the main chain.
This approach significantly reduces the load on the main blockchain, allowing for faster processing of votes while still maintaining the security and transparency provided by the blockchain.
These advancements in blockchain technology are crucial for voting applications, as they address key challenges, such as scalability, speed, and energy efficiency, making blockchain more viable for large-scale voting systems.
Case Studies: Blockchain Voting in Action
Several voting oversight bodies are already testing examples of blockchain technology in the electoral processes. For instance, Estonia has pioneered digital governance and electronic voting (e-voting) since 2005.
In 2018, West Virginia piloted a blockchain-based mobile voting app for overseas military personnel to provide a secure and accessible voting method.
In October 2020, a Utah voter was the first to cast a vote on-chain in a presidential election. Utah has been testing blockchain voting for a few years now, using it to simplify voting for overseas military personnel, disabled people, and others who have limited access to traditional voting.
It’s worth mentioning that the Utah voters who participated and the election officials in charge of administering elections and ensuring their integrity are very optimistic about these early tests with blockchain voting. This viewpoint leads us to the question of credible feedback about implementing blockchain voting.
Resistance to Blockchain Voting
The electoral process has thousands of stakeholders who profit from the existing system’s inefficiencies, inequities, and lack of transparency.
Take mail-in voting, a very low-tech way to increase voter access. Even though research shows minimal fraud risk, vested interests have conducted misinformation campaigns to raise the public’s doubts about mail-in voting. The Pew Research Center reports that 25% of Americans think voter fraud has been a significant problem with voting by mail, even though the evidence proves the opposite.
Mailing a ballot is something everyone understands. Blockchain is a new technology with ties to cryptocurrency. Both topics have a low level of mainstream understanding. Most people haven’t heard of blockchain, or if they have, they think it’s synonymous with Bitcoin.
So, it’s not surprising that blockchain voting has an uphill battle for widespread adoption. For example, the US Vote Foundation, a bi-partisan voter assistance organization, is adamantly against blockchain voting, calling it a “threat to democracy.”
A closer look at their website information about blockchain voting shows us that, for a bipartisan non-profit, their stance on blockchain voting has a distinctly partisan ring to it. The information about blockchain voting ranges from misleading to incorrect.
Informed criticism of blockchain voting’s weak spots is healthy. Misleading information based on bias is not helpful. When evaluating information about blockchain voting, thoughtful people who want to develop an informed opinion might consider the information source’s motivation. Is the survival of this business, government entity, or organization threatened by the successful implementation of blockchain voting?
In other words, for the US Vote Foundation, widespread adoption of blockchain voting would likely make its services less relevant. Blockchain voting is not so much a threat to democracy as it threatens the relevance of the US Vote Foundation.
Moving Ahead: The Future of Blockchain Voting
Blockchain voting at scale would likely lead to less reliance on political campaigns. The entire election could consist of a single website with detailed positioning statements for each candidate, a series of debates recorded and available online, and people voting either at the polls or on their phones or computers on election day.
That simplified scenario is not everyone’s version of improvement, though. The role of blockchain in electoral processes will depend on several uncertain factors. Like many technologies that make sense from a rational point of view, blockchain voting adoption will have to overcome emotional responses, fear of change, and entrenched self-interests.
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The above is for general info purposes only and should not be interpreted as professional advice. Please seek independent legal, financial, tax, or other advice specific to your particular situation.