Can We Really Create Voting Transparency in Elections with Blockchain?

Given the increasing momentum behind blockchain as a foundational and potentially transformational technology, audiences are roughly broken down into two camps. The first camp are those who view blockchain through a financial and corporate lens. This group sees new ways to drive efficiencies through private or consortium blockchains.

The second camp consists of those who view blockchain’s mission and purpose from a truly societal or philanthropic perspective. They aim to foundationally change the way people live. Such changes may include access to finance, legitimate property claims (e.g. land rights in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake) and establishing everyone’s right to vote in democratic countries.

The issue with current voting systems

Despite significant advances in digitisation that have appeared throughout everyday life, the vast majority of existing models for collaborative decision making and vote counting are still executed through traditional paper ballots or mechanical devices. It is no surprise to see high profile vote re-counts in elections with razor thin margins, with boxes of paper ballots for tired volunteers to sift through and sort until the early morning hours. Paper voting, even though auditable and digitally un-hackable, can also lead to “hanging chads”, uncounted votes caused by imperfect hole-punching of ballot papers, as we saw in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election. Current systems are anachronistic, subject to errors, open to electoral fraud and highly inefficient in our present digitally-connected society.

Voter turnout is also declining. Part of the reason for this is voter apathy, stemmed from the lack of transparency and integrity of the election process. Another reason for this decline is the requirement for paper-based IDs for traditional ballot voting, which often the least fortunate members of society do not have. Without a mechanism for reaching consensus at scale, this trend may well continue.

What blockchain electronic-voting can offer

Blockchain e-voting grants the ability to record, count and manage votes on a distributed peer-to-peer network. All transactions are verified automatically by the network and audited in real time with cryptographic validation by each independent node in the network and is safe from central server hacks. Results cannot be (in theory) challenged, unlike penetrable electronic voting systems.

Self-sovereign IDs, once created, should permanently enfranchise greater numbers of the population. Once voter identity has been verified and established on a blockchain, the voter would be sent a digital “right to vote”, which can be used on election day on a digital polling station. Cryptography would ensure a vote cast matches up to a pre-registered voter ID so that there can be no manipulation of those votes or voting twice.

Blockchain e-voting is already taking place

In March 2018, Sierra Leone quietly used e-voting for its hotly contested presidential election.  Blockchain voting company Agora was engaged to oversee and verify the nation’s democratic process, through its proprietary distributed ledger.

Another interesting application of blockchain e-voting was piloted by technology non-profit Democracy Earth Foundation in 2016 during the Colombian Peace Plebiscite Vote. Columbian expats were not only given the choice between voting “Yes” or “No”, each voter could vote on sub-themes of the proposed peace treaty and indicate the relative importance of each one.

Blockchain e-voting also has the potential to increase accountability post-vote. For example, if there is a shareholder vote at an AGM, smart contracts could be used to enforce actions upon specific milestones. The end goal is towards more automation – the elimination of the necessity of a third party – to adhere to the terms of the contract.

Although in its nascent stage, we believe that blockchain has the potential to solve many of the problems we see in electoral systems today. It will reduce the risk of vote rigging, increase turnout and automate processes to reduce errors from counting votes.

The greater challenge we see will be to win the battle for people’s trust that any new blockchain technology driven solution is secure, immutable and user friendly at the application layer. Blockchain may solve questions around security and voter participation, but it cannot provide answers to other electoral issues such as gerrymandering and coercion at the point of vote. Therefore, we believe that education is key. We are partnering with governments, NGO’s and leaders in this space to help understand the key hurdles to overcome widespread adoption. We expect the that the future of e-voting will be a staggered approach. Rather than replace existing voting procedures overnight, a more practical solution may be to run both traditional paper-based ballot boxes and blockchain/biometric options concurrently until the public, and government officials, feel comfortable with a wholesale transition.

About the Author(s): Mark Blick is Head of Government Solutions at Diginex, Chris Hambarsoomian is a Senior Associate in the Government Solutions team.

Theme: Making Societies More Secure