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What blockchain looks like at the ballot box

Scott Driscoll
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With concern over voter fraud and suppression, foreign meddling and electronic voting machine security, many are looking for ways to upgrade voting technology.

And blockchain could be the answer.

For some, blockchain promises a way to improve security and make voting more accessible. Others believe blockchain only adds vulnerabilities to an already weak system. Without a paper trail, electronic voting machines cast a cloud of doubt over whether the voting record could be manipulated. If blockchain can enhance digital voting security, then options like voting through an app become possible. Could the unalterable record of a blockchain provide a digital voting system as secure and widely adopted as paper ballots?

What blockchain looks like in voting right now

Overseas military officers from West Virginia are about to try out a blockchain-based voting system for submitting absentee ballots. The system, created by Voatz, Inc., is a permission-based blockchain built on the HyperLedger framework created by IBM. You can learn more about HyperLedger in my course. The Voatz system stores a copy on 8 different systems distributed geographically and on different vendors—Azure and AWS. Voatz still controls all the machines, but this initial rollout paints a picture of a record controlled by many different groups, which is partly where blockchain derives its security.

Interestingly, the Voatz system still utilizes paper as a backup in case of an audit. Every time a vote is recorded, a paper record is printed out. Security experts still believe that paper ballots scanned with optical readers and checked with random audits are the most secure choice we have today. Voatz printed ballots provide some of that assurance, but there is still concern over the registration process and phone security. The app uses biometric facial recognition to authenticate voters, and is only permitted to run on recent phones meeting security thresholds.

Why blockchain: An indelible record

One of the main benefits of a blockchain is its resistance to undetectable tampering. Unlike many traditional databases, a blockchain is stored on many different computers at once and structured to only allow additions to the database (no deletions or modifications). On a traditional database, an attacker would only need an administrative password to make an undetectable change. On a blockchain, the attacker must take over a majority the machines, which are ideally controlled by different organizations. Blockchains also store data fingerprints called hashes that make any data changes immediately apparent.

Why not blockchain: Privacy and management

One concern of an unalterable digital record is that a voter’s choice could be revealed later on. A way is needed to prove one-vote-per-person without revealing the vote. While current blockchain technology may fall short, work on Zero Knowledge Proofs may provide a solution in the future.

And if blockchain enables mobile voting, another concern is coercion via someone watching over your shoulder as you vote. As wonderful as voting from an app sounds, the privacy afforded by a voting booth is important. Grontas and other researchers have been working on solutions like allowing a voter to submit several votes, so a coercer wouldn’t know which is real. 

In addition to privacy challenges, any electronic voting system must also deal with identity management. There are horror stories of early Bitcoin adopters losing their private keys, which effectively destroys their holdings. Any voting system will need user-friendly management system that doesn’t involve complicated backups and usage, and a few organizations are finding solutions. The Grid+ device, that buys and sells electric power, promises to hide the complexity of private key management. HTC will soon be releasing a blockchain phone designed to make blockchain usage easier. Secure Elements, or special security areas inside computer chips, may also help on this front.

A world beyond paper ballots

As some jurisdictions revert back to paper ballots, blockchain may provide a path forward that combines the convenience of digital with the security of paper. Unfortunately, simply using a blockchain database structure does not make the data secure—the network design and motivations of participants are equally important. As solutions present the possibility of securing elections with blockchain, we must ensure that the verification, autonomy and privacy of the voting process is protected as well.

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Scott Driscoll

Scott Driscoll is a software engineer and Pluralsight author who's fascinated by Bitcoin and blockchain and passionate about explaining and... See more