Blockchain is being touted as a tool for voting and fraud-free referendums and elections. There might be more need for it than we think.
A CBInsights report titled “How blockchain could secure elections” highlights all the ways that elections can be compromised and suggests how blockchain can be a solution. There also have been some practical attempts at using blockchain for real elections and referendums, with varying degrees of success.
Is voting a use-case for blockchain, or is it just a good idea in theory?
This article explores the current status of blockchain for voting to answer that question. It covers the following topics:
What can go wrong with an election?
According to the CBInsights report,
“Elections are under threat from malicious actors that can infiltrate voting machines, alter voter registration databases, coordinate disinformation campaigns, and more. Blockchain technology could help.”
Electoral fraud, also known as election manipulation or vote rigging, happens when there is illegal interference in the process of an election. Unfortunately, it happens all around the world.
In the USA there have been accusations of interference from foreign countries in the 2016 presidential election campaign. The recent midterm elections have seen the breakdown of electoral systems and machinery, accusations of bias from electoral officials, attempts by non-citizens to vote, and the need for recount in some areas.
In the Netherlands and France, there has been a return to paper and pen votingand manual counting of votes to avoid hacking of electronic systems.
A Washington Post analysis of the Russian election questioned the way poll workers were selected and highlighted the potential for these workers to be pressurized into fraudulent activity.
A commission set up to investigate the 2007 presidential elections in Kenya, in Africa, found that it was actually impossible to know who had won the election, due to double voter registration, widespread impersonation and ballot stuffing (where one person submits multiple votes or votes in multiple places). Technology, including biometric recognition of voters, was set up to prevent this for the 2013 elections. Unfortunately, the technology was faulty. For the 2017 elections, a manual system was set up alongside the electronic one to identify voters and transmit results. All of this has led to huge suspicion of the electoral process, the annulment of results by the Supreme Court and even large-scale violence in the country.
Widespread fraud in the voter list was suspected for the 2018 Malaysianelection. One registered voter would have been 121 years old, many dead people were on the list and multiple people were listed to the same address — believed to be a scheme to “move” voters to marginal constituencies. In fact, according to the independent Electoral Integrity Project, Malaysia ranked 114th out of 127 countries surveyed for electoral integrity.
Blockchain solutions to electoral fraud
The CBInsights report noted that an election can be compromised in a variety of ways. These are the most vulnerable areas:
1. Information warfare
2. Electronic voter registration databases
3. Voting machinery and tabulation systems
4. Election reporting systems
5. Post-election audits
The following graphic taken from the report shows what can happen to Voter Chris:
How can blockchain help Voter Chris and ensure that his vote is legitimate and counted?
The blockchain solution to fake news and disinformation
What voters hear from various media sources before an election has a major impact on their political opinions and their eventual voting choices. Increasingly they are being subjected to targeted fake news and disinformation, digitally doctored photos and videos, weaponized social media. It is very difficult to know what the facts are.
The answer would be cryptographic media verification, where the source of a media report can be traced. Each report would have a unique identifier, linked to a blockchain record. Voters would know that reports without such identifiers should be regarded with some suspicion.
This solution would require cooperation from the media industry, government and non-governmental institutions, and seems to be a long way off.
The blockchain solution to hacks of voter databases
Tampering might mean that the voters who are likely to vote for a particular candidate are deleted. These voters will not be allowed to vote when they arrive at the voting station. Hackers could remove an entire state’s database, delaying or stopping an election altogether.
This type of hacking is also an attack on privacy, as personally identifiable information is made available to hackers. They can sell on the information, or it can be used to target potential voters with disinformation.
Possibly one of the most powerful ways that blockchain can be used for voting is in managing voter identities.
In a perfect blockchain world, everyone would have an authenticated digital ID on a public, permissionless blockchain. In a less perfect world, there have been suggestions about permissioned ledgers. This would register voters whose identities have been authenticated by a centralized but independent group of universities and non-governmental organisations. They would use government ID documents and biometric information as the basis. This authenticated identity registered on the blockchain could be used to match against the identity registered on the voter database.
If blockchain technology were to be more widely accepted for voting, then the immutable nature of records on the blockchain would go beyond just validating the voter’s identity. It would be extended to keeping ballots secret and allowing voters to check that their votes have been correctly allocated.
The blockchain solution to hacks of voting hardware
Voting machines, tabulation systems and election office networks that are connected to the internet are particularly vulnerable. This was shown quite clearly when a group of participants at a so-called hacker conference managed to breach just about every aspect of the voting process in the USA. According to the organisers of this Def Con,
“By the end of the conference, every piece of equipment in the Voting Village was effectively breached in some manner. Participants with little prior knowledge and only limited tools and resources were quite capable of undermining the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of these systems.”
Linked to this is the potential for a vulnerability in one system to allow for hacking into other systems, and for manufacturers of hardware components to imbed malware for this purpose. Equipment manufactured by one company could affect thousands of jurisdictions where it is used.
The blockchain solution is aimed at increasing voter participation especially for those who are on the voter database but cannot go to the voting station to vote. Voters will vote on mobile devices, with blockchain securing the votes. Although this is not a perfect solution, as mobile devices can also be hacked, it is probably more difficult to hack every individual voter’s device than it is to hack into a centralized voting machine.
With this type of system, voting could take place over a longer period of time rather than having everyone vote on the same day in designated places.
A pilot has been used in West Virginia in the US, to allow military personnel based overseas to vote. This is still at a beginner stage, as officials have had to copy these votes onto a paper ballot and then scan them into the usual system.
The blockchain solution to compromised election reports and post-election audits
Voting results can be falsified by attacks on data streams, taking over of social media accounts, the use of spoofed videos depicting bogus election winners. Technology can inadvertently make this worse. Malicious neural networks using machine learning and AI can work together to produce realistic but false audio, image and video content.
In addition, the only really reliable way to audit voting right now is via a paper trail. The best is thought to be a paper vote that is then scanned and digitized for electronic tabulation. Completely electronic systems cannot be audited.
On a public blockchain, voters would know how many voters there had been. They could check that all votes had been counted, without knowing what the actual vote was or the identity of the voter. They would be able to check that their own votes had been correctly allocated. They would do this via a QR code tied to their own votes.
Pilot projects to test blockchain for voting
Blockchain has the potential to allow for greater voter participation, in a way that preserves anonymity, prevents record tampering and allows for auditing. Pilot projects to test this may be small, but they show promise.
Zug has since 2017 undertaken an initiative to create single electronic identities for its citizens. It has been working with the uPort start-up for this. Citizens can download the uPort app, enter their own information and have it saved on the Ethereum blockchain.
During June/July 2018, Zug tested a blockchain-based voting system. The system was developed by the software company Luxoft, in partnership with the city and the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences. The numbers of participants were small but the pilot was declared a success.
Most participants reported that they found it easy to vote digitally, some said they would be happy to use the system to complete tax returns and others suggested using it to borrow books from the municipal library.
West Virginia, USA
As noted earlier, this was a project to allow military personnel on active duty outside of the USA to participate in the November 2018 midterm elections.
The State partnered with start-up Voatz. The voter takes a selfie and the system uses facial recognition technology to compare it to a driver’s license or other ID. Citizens can vote using a smart phone or tablet. The system was originally tested in a very small pilot during the May 2018 primaries. Four independent audits verified the accuracy of those results. In November, nearly 150 voters from 29 countries took part in the pilot, and they were from 24 of West Virginia’s 55 counties. Votes are said to include one from a pilot from his aircraft. It is designed to be used where military personnel do not have access to a reliable mail service or stable phone or fax line to register a vote.
This system could make a big difference to voter participation numbers. One estimate is that only 4% of 2.6 million eligible overseas voters participated in the 2014 midterm elections.
Critics of the Voatz system say that although the mobile app encrypts the voter’s data, there is no way to guarantee the security of the voter’s phone or service network. However, the system has been used in pilot programs for political parties, universities, labor unions and non-profits across the country and has involved 70,000 voters to date. Attention is being given to improving voter accessibility for those who lack proper forms of ID, including the poor, the disabled, the elderly and those living in very remote areas. Secured tablet voting stations are being tested in hospitals and elder-care centers.
In August 2018, the Japanese city of Tsukuba trialed a blockchain-based voting system to test citizens’ views on a number of social programmes. The basis is the My Number Card — a 12-digit ID number introduced for all citizens in 2015. The mayor Tatsuo Igarashi said that the technology was easier to use than was anticipated and that it solved the problems of meddling in the voting process and falsification of results.
Agora Technologies announced that the March elections in Sierra Leone had used blockchain technology. This was a bit of a stretch of the truth. In fact, the company ran a blockchain trial alongside the traditional election process to illustrate how the system could be used in the future.
While the incorrect reporting was unfortunate, the incident does highlight how countries are becoming more open to the application of blockchain technology.
Achieving end-to-end verifiable elections
In theory, blockchain can provide solutions for every stage of the voting process. In practice, we are at the very beginning of applying it and this remains an area of opportunity for entrepreneurs and developers.
The end-goal, or what the CBInsights report calls the “gold standard”, for any system of voting is that
· Voters are satisfied that their votes have been properly recorded
· Voters can verify that their votes were counted as part of the final result
· The public can verify that the end result is accurate
No current system can offer these three results. But blockchain may go some way to moving voting in the right direction, and making sure that every vote does, in fact, count.