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Blockchain-enabled voting as a medium for democracy

Following my previous article about blockchain and its application to law, the impact of blockchain may once more be demonstrated through its help in improving the conditions for voting.


The right to free and fair elections is recognised as a fundamental tenet of modern western democracies. As recognised in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Declaration on the Criteria for Free and Fair elections;


periodic and genuine elections are a necessary and indispensable element of sustained efforts to protect the rights and interests of the governed…[as] the right of everyone to take part in the government of his or her country is a crucial factor in the effective enjoyment by all of human rights and fundamental freedoms” [1]


Free elections are generally considered to be those where citizens may freely and secretly make a choice without intimation. On the other hand, fairness is often related to whether individuals have equal opportunity to register to vote and be assured that their votes are counted, and the totals are reflective of the actual votes.


Throughout the paper-ballot process, there are many opportunities for electoral malpractice as they are often “reliant on the procedural security of officials conducting their jobs correctly and honestly.” [2] Examples of such malpractice may be improper voter registration, the use of fake ballots, voter intimidation, the incorrect counting of votes or the release of incorrect results. [3]


Such practices of voter suppression must be considered in conjunction with the fact that the laws surrounding physical voting often disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters. This may occur due to last-minute polling station changes where individuals have low access to private transport, requirement of photo-identification [4], the individual’s lack of ability to take time off to vote, and understaffed and inaccessible stations in predominantly minority ethnic neighbourhoods.[5]


Additionally, in the UK, it has been noted that people with disabilities face physical and other barriers to political participation. [6] Such physical barriers to voting are especially problematic as individuals may feel discouraged from voting, thus losing confidence in the electoral process and plummeting voter turnouts. In fact, in the 2016 American Presidential elections, one third of the 55% of the population which had voted felt that their ballots would not be counted. [7]


Voting booths themselves must ensure security and immutability in order to be resistant to outside influence. However, they are often not secure enough - A recent example of out-dated security can be seen in West Virginia. The electronic voting ‘WINVote’ machines had clear security vulnerabilities but were still used widely during the 2016 presidential elections. Examples of such security vulnerabilities include the use of WEP wireless connection with the unchangeable password of “abcd”, the use of Windows XP software not updated since 2004, a hardwired administrator password “admin” and many more. [8]

One solution to improve the security, immutability, and access to voting would be to take advantage of blockchain technology. Two of blockchain’s core foundations are security and immutability. One of many implementations of blockchain voting may go as follows:


1. The Voter creates a voter account, and verifies their identity through biometric authentication

2. Once verified, the voter receives a token that can be used on the voting network

3. Come election day, the voter sends their token to the candidate of their choice (or an “abstain” account)

4. After voting, citizens can check their own vote


By using cryptography and hashing algorithms, users may remain anonymous and rest assured their data (in this case vote) is secured. It is virtually impossible to alter previous blocks on a blockchain, as the attacker would require more computing power than the entire network of nodes, making it immutable.


Step 1 is a security layer to ensure the distribution of voting tokens is managed correctly, and if done properly can ensure each citizen gets 1 vote and that those voting are in fact citizens. This layer may be run by the government, or independent electoral agencies. The more data points provided by an individual, the less likely another may ‘hack’ their identity.


Step 2 is the issuance of a token on the blockchain voting network itself, permissioned by the government or an independent electoral agency after step 1.

Step 3 is the voting itself. During election time, the candidates along with an abstain account will be created. Citizens can then send their tokens to their candidates of choosing.


Step 4 is one of the most important steps of all, as voters can verify their vote. Where individuals using paper ballot voting systems may not be sure that their vote has been correctly recorded or modified, blockchain-enabled voting may provide greater transparency and improve public trust in the voting system.

The procedure above would be able to fix and improve various aspects of the voting process. By allowing citizens to quickly and easily register for voting, this encourages more people to vote as well as lowering the barriers to voting.

An example of mobile blockchain-enabled voting applications being used to provide for absentee voting may be the Virginia ‘Voatz’ trial. This scheme was piloted and used for absentee votes for military personnel and overseas citizens and allowed individuals to vote remotely. Mobile voting provides for a streamlined process as one user noted that “In the same amount of time that I could’ve pulled up and watched a YouTube video, I actually got to go perform my civic duty.”. [9].


Further, mobile voting may be especially important for citizens in countries where there exists a high rate of smart phone adoption, large rural populations, and high levels of distrust in governance due to widespread corruption. However, there may have to be certain design consideration to ensure the security and effectiveness of Blockchain-enabled voting platforms namely that:

(1) individuals should be able to check that their vote was counted but shouldn’t be able to see the vote of another

(2) the system shouldn’t facilitate vote coercion

(3) not all voters have internet access

(4) only citizens are entitled to vote

(5) the system must be auditable (adapted from [10])


Security experts have noted the possibility of people hacking into tje user’s devices or using phishing scams to gain the private keys of citizens so as to ‘steal’ their vote. As it stands, it is true that individuals may hack into the devices of others. However, as there is no centralised database to hack, hackers would have to target each individual node to change the outcome as a whole. [11]


In order to address the possible client-side issues, hybrid solutions which involve “end-to-end verifiable voting system that uses a blockchain as a public ledger but requires voters to show up and vote in person” have been suggested. [12] This way of implementing local blockchain based voting involves the least amount of behavioural change and may be more familiar to the older generations. Such hybrid solutions can pave the way for the wide-scale implementation of Blockchain-enabled technology.


Current speculations regarding the implementation of blockchain-enabled voting are largely based on assumptions of how systems will be designed where in reality, execution may vary as in programming - there are often a wide range of solutions to a singular problem.


According to the European Parliamentary Research service, Blockchain-enabled voting is “inevitable development which could speed up, simplify and reduce the cost of elections” as help pave way for a more “direct, decentralised, bottom-up democracy”

[13]. Given the current rate of technological development, we may see blockchain-enabled voting being used in a local and national setting within the next 5 years. Such an implementation of distributed ledger technology for voting will most likely work most efficiently alongside other ledgers (such as E-Identity ledgers [14]) and may provide for more transparent, auditable and democratic elections given that certain key design considerations are adhered to.



Maissa Natcha Dronkers

Human Rights Section Feature Writer

6th April 2019



 

[2] Article 3 Protocol 1 European Convention on Human Rights

[2] Koven, Jackie "Block The Vote: Could Blockchain Technology Cybersecure Elections?" Forbes (2016) Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/08/30/block-the-vote-couldblockchain-technology-cybersecure-elections/

[3]

[6] House of Commons Briefing Paper CBP-7501 14 Sept 2018 Available at:

[10] Kaspersky, Eugene. "Cyber Security Case Study Competition- Kaspersky." The Economist (2016) Available at: http://www.economist.com/whichmba/mba-case-studies/cyber-securitycase-study-competition-2016


Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are listed in the bibliography above.

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