In less than 70 days, the world’s oldest democracy will be facing its biggest showdown in an unprecedented way and at extraordinary times. Organizing an event as massive as the federal elections during these challenging times requires not just an unusual amount of planning, but also innovative ways of doing so. Many options, such as absentee voting and mail-in voting, which earlier were sparsely used, are now widely encouraged. However, there have been concerns raised about these voting mechanisms with the US President often denouncing them as rife in fraud. At times when the trustworthy in-person voting is not a safe option, what are the other reliable options? How does Blockchain voting fit into the paradigm?
Traditional ways of voting – paper ballot and voting machines
Since the first Presidential elections held in 1788-1789, the people of the United States of America, have chosen to exercise their rights to vote in many ways.
Traditionally, in-person voting has been the most popular choice among US voters. People who are eligible to vote visit their designated polling station on the election day, where based on the voters’ state, they would have to assert their identity with a valid ID. Following this, they cast their votes by means of paper ballots or electronic voting. Electronic voting in the United States involves various machines — from touch screens for voters to mark choices to scanners to read paper ballots.
Alternate ways of voting – absentee ballots and vote-in-mail
In recent times, however, alternate voting options such as absentee voting and mail-in voting are becoming popular. Both options allow citizens to vote even when they are ‘absent’ from their local voting jurisdiction. Absentee voting dates back to the Civil War times, when the soldiers were sent ballots to enable them to cast their votes despite being outside their home states. This provision was later extended to civilians who are unable to exercise their rights due to various reasons, including illness, injury, or disability.
In both absentee voting and mail-in vote, eligible citizens receive ballots by mail. They can then record their votes and mail their ballots back. In mail-in voting, people residing in a particular jurisdiction are sent the ballots irrespective of whether they opt for it or not. Whereas, in the case of absentee ballots, citizens have to register and request for the absentee ballot. Due to the ongoing pandemic scare, many states are encouraging their citizens to vote remotely in the upcoming national elections. Several states now do not require people to submit a reason when opting for absentee ballots.
What are the drawbacks?
The costs involved in traditional voting is higher than the expected benefits. The 2016 elections cost a staggering US $6.5 million. To curb expenses, authorities in several states take actions such as closing down a few voting booths. Contrarily, such measures will result in voter apathy as they end up waiting long hours to exercise their right. Additionally, delay in delivering mailed votes will risk voter disenfranchise.
Lack of Transparency and Accountability
The traditional voting procedures are not sufficiently exposed to public scrutiny, thereby increasing the possibility of rigged election. In the 2018 Curling vs Kemp case, Georgia voters successfully demonstrated how a lack of transparency in the paperless voting machines compromised their votes, jeopardizing their constitutional right to vote.
Deliberate or accidental frauds
In traditional voting systems, there are opportunities to change, lose or incorrectly tally votes. The Bush vs Gore protracted vote recount of 2000 is the best example that demonstrates how the alleged miscount of mere 537 votes swayed the entire election in an unexpected way. Confusing votes, and perforated and dented ballots ultimately decided the US Presidency.
Absentee or mail-in vote ballot systems gives the voters the freedom to vote from anywhere. But they tend to reduce privacy and increase the possibility of changed or lost ballots. Recently, a New Jersey judge nullified one of the municipal elections citing allegations of vote-in-mail fraud.
Security and System Failures
In the US, there are 3,141 counties and their equivalents, spread across 50 states and the District of Columbia. Several of these states still use antiquated paperless voting machines that are vulnerable to hacks. In the past, the Russian hackers have meddled with the voter databases intending to influence the 2016 Presidential elections. Additionally, poorly designed voting systems also raise concerns about the elections’ integrity. The epic failure of the technology in this year’s Iowa caucus is the best example of such a debacle.
Can Blockchain voting address these issues?
Blockchain technology has the potential to facilitate a secure, accurate, and transparent election while addressing privacy concerns. A single vote cast using Blockchain is likely to bring down the cost of the vote from typical $7 to $25 to less than 50 cents. The immutable nature of the technology ensures election integrity and legitimacy of the outcomes.
Transparency and Accountability
Firstly, Blockchain facilitates voters to verify their votes after casting them. Additionally, immutably stored and timestamped votes ascertain transparency in the election process.
Secondly, transparent systems inherently add accountability. Opportunities to rig the system significantly reduces if all the actions are immutable and transparent.
First segregating responsibilities between the various participant nodes in the election process will ensure no collusion is possible. Having three distinct types of nodes — administrators to manage elections, validators to confirm votes, and nodes for counting votes — can reduce the possible collusion.
Secondly, the tamper-evident and incontrovertible databases ensure deliberate tampering of votes is unfeasible. Finally, since multiple, distributed nodes have to arrive at a consensus for adding votes to a block, it is possible to mitigate the opportunities of intentional fraud.
Privacy with Blockchain voting
There are two distinct privacy concerns with Blockchain voting. First is the voter privacy. If the votes and the voter data are in the same system, the ballots are likely to be traced back to the voters. Knowing the voters might result in malicious validators intending to sway the elections in a candidate’s favor to reject their votes. Hence, it is vital to maintain two distinct Blockchain systems – one for votes and one to track voter turnout.
The second concern is the privacy of votes. It is monumental to encrypt the ballots before recording them in Blockchain. Zero Knowledge Proofs help the voters declare their votes without revealing any information about the choice itself.
Security with Blockchain voting
Blockchain combines the power of cryptography with transparency, which makes it a convenient and secure option for online voting. People can now cast their votes using a computer or a mobile device, without the security or their privacy compromised.
What are the challenges with Blockchain voting?
Blockchain technology does add value to the election process. Nonetheless, using this technology for conducting elections brings in problems unique to the technology. The first problem to tackle is the block finality time. Depending on the system used, the time taken varies from a few seconds to a few hours. Longer confirmation times increases the possibility of double voting – Voting process that allows voters to cast their ballots multiple times as their previous votes are not yet confirmed. Hence it is wise to choose fault-tolerant algorithms instead of resource-intensive Proof-of-Work algorithms to accelerate the vote confirmation time.
Secondly, using Blockchain might endanger the fundamental principle enshrined by the US constitution — 1-person-1-vote. In other forms of voting, once the voter casts their votes, their ballots are assured to be counted unless tampered. With Blockchain, there is an additional layer of validator consensus on transactions (votes). If a majority of the validator nodes collude and reject the ballots, the voters risk losing their votes. Hence, it is judicious to have disinterested third parties overseeing the voting process.
Finally, the gravest concern is leaving out technology-challenged people from the system. With Blockchain only voting systems, there is a risk of voters who are not technology savvy or do not have access to necessary infrastructure get left out of the election process. A hybrid solution of leveraging Blockchain along with the existing systems, will be beneficial. Voters have a choice to use either traditional voting mechanisms or Blockchain powered systems for registration and voting. However, irrespective of the voting mechanism, the votes have to be recorded on Blockchain. This hybrid approach would give the best of both worlds.
Is the US using Blockchain voting?
In the past, several states have employed Blockchain voting on a small scale. In West Virginia, Blockchain was used to record the votes of the overseas military workers in the 2018 midterm elections. The 2016 Utah GOP primaries and the 2019 Denver municipal elections employed Blockchain voting. Recently, the US Patent and Trademark Office revealed an application from USPS titled – Secure Voting System – that contemplates leveraging Blockchain technology to secure voting by mail.
In conclusion, Blockchain technology might not be the panacea for all voting problems. But the benefits of Blockchain voting would go far in reducing voter apathy and even encourage more people to vote.