Are we ready for a new way of voting?
Even with President Biden safely ensconced in the White House, the controversies over the US Election still rumble on. It has just been announced that Dominion Voting Systems has sued Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in a $1.3bn defamation lawsuit, over his baseless election fraud conspiracy theories.
Millions of Americans continue to believe that the election was “stolen”, yet cybersecurity experts have declared that: “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.”
Was it the most secure election ever? I know who I believe. Although I have no way of knowing for sure, I’m inclined to agree with the assertion.
Election officials across the nation knew that the election results would be questioned long before the actual election took place. Take this tweet from Donald Trump in July, four months before the election date: “2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.”
If you know in advance that every counted vote will be contested and fought over, then you are going to make sure that every conceivable lapse in security or potential for error is covered and negated.
Like the UK, the US relies on paper votes, whether mailed or cast in person. Even the aforementioned Dominion, which was used in multiple states, has a trail of paper. With the Dominion method, voters mark their choices on a touch screen, and when they’re finished, the machine prints out a paper record with a summary of their selections. Voters then feed the paper into a scanner so their vote can be tabulated.
But even though every vote was conscientiously counted and, in some states, repeatedly recounted, surely technology can provide an even better and totally foolproof method of vote counting?
Ballot by Blockchain?
Today (26th January 2021), the market capitalisation of bitcoin is calculated to be more than $600 billion. That’s 600 billion reasons why the system behind bitcoin has to be secure.
Bitcoin is built upon the trust in blockchain technology, the system of recording information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system. The whole point of using a blockchain is to let people share valuable data in a secure, tamperproof way.
Simplistically, blockchain is a distributed ledger technology that allows data to be stored globally on thousands of servers – while letting anyone on the network see everyone else's entries in near real-time. That makes it difficult for one user to gain control of the network, unless they have at least 51% of the computing power. In the case of bitcoin, the scale of the operation makes this unattainable.
As it is so secure, why not apply blockchain principles to elections? All voters would need is a connected device.
The New Statesman’s Simon Chapman explains: “An election conducted using blockchain technology would require that each voter be given a secure and unique identifier or “key” to access a “smart contract” – an agreement written in code – which they would use to vote without having to attend a polling station.”
Joe Liebkind of Investopedia writes: “A blockchain-based voting application does not concern itself with the security of its Internet connection, because any hacker with access to the terminal will not be able to affect other nodes. Voters can effectively submit their vote without revealing their identity or political preferences to the public. Officials can count votes with absolute certainty, knowing that each ID can be attributed to one vote, no fakes can be created, and that tampering is impossible.”
As well as increasing voter participation, Liebkind points out another advantage. It is cheap - a single vote currently costs between $7 and $25, when all factors are considered. A blockchain product costs just 50 cents per vote.
It sounds simple - and it has already been used for elections. One early adopter has been Estonia, which has used the technology, without any controversies, for several elections since 2015.
There have also been several experiments in the US, including West Virginia, Denver and Utah County, They have all used blockchain-based mobile apps to allow military members and their families living overseas to cast absentee ballots using an iPhone.
Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, said that while the state currently has no plans to expand the use of the mobile voting beyond military absentee voters, his office did "a ton of due diligence" on the technology before and after using it: “Not only does blockchain make it secure, but the mobile app has a really unique biometric safeguard system in place as well as facial recognition and thumb prints.”
Reduced costs and increased participation? What’s not to like?
Apparently quite a lot…
Multiplying the risk
One of the biggest disadvantages of paper voting is also one of its most important strengths. In a general election the volume of votes is enormous. They take an age to count, but there is safety in numbers. Even if Trump was correct in saying that mail-in ballots with his name on were being dumped in rivers (they weren’t!), it would be some achievement to lose enough voting slips to rig a state election.
With a wholly digital election, one act of sabotage could change everything.
A research paper by academics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published in November, investigated the veracity of blockchain voting systems. The takeaways were clear:
Obviously fearing they hadn’t made the point strongly enough, one of the authors, Ron Rivest, also commented: “I haven’t yet seen a blockchain system that I would trust with a county-fair jellybean count, much less a presidential election!”
“I haven’t yet seen a blockchain system that I would trust with a county-fair jellybean count, much less a presidential election!”
So why does blockchain fall down when translated to elections?
Coindesk’s Benjamin Powers describes a key issue: “The [MIT] report recognises the desire for people to want the voting process to be faster and more efficient, but pushes back on the idea that just because we do things like shop or bank online, that means elections should be done in the same way.
“One reason is that those systems have ‘higher tolerances for failure’. For example, if an issue were to occur, such as credit card fraud, you could block your card and a bank might even reimburse you. But when it comes to an election, there is little remedy if a vote is altered or not delivered, particularly given that online voting systems might not always recognise when one of these actions occurred.”
The scepticism is shared by Jeremy Epstein, vice chairman of the Association for Computing Machinery's U.S. Technology Policy Committee: “If I were running for office and they decided to use blockchain for that election, I'd be scared,”
According to Epstein, there are many reasons blockchain is not good for voting. For one, it assumes there's no malware in the voter's computer. It also assumes you want all the votes to be perennially public, because if someone finds a way to hack into the blockchain, everyone's vote becomes public. And, while blockchain networks may be able to handle small absentee voter populations, the technology could not stand up to use by the general voter populace and its volumes.
"Tampering with mailed paper ballots is a one-at-a-time attack,” says Epstein. “Infecting voters' computers with malware or infecting the computers in the elections office that handle and count ballots are both effective methods for large-scale corruption.”
With many security experts expressing fear and reservations about the wholesale use of blockchain for elections, it is clear that a full technological revolution will have to wait.
The US election was a clear example of how votes can be accurately and safely collated, with the tiniest margin for error or fraud. It was so well run and transparent that the result has survived an incredible 86 attempted lawsuits filed by Donald Trump and his supporters.
As the old adage goes - if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
Guy Middleton is a Treasury Associate Director at Harvey John.
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