There is no underplaying the importance of the 2020 US Presidential Election and seems like the vote casting is off to a good start, especially with blockchain making headlines for all the right reasons in an ambiance of voter concern regarding the security and integrity of the elections. On October 13th, the first-ever vote using blockchain was cast from Utah for the US presidential election using a mobile application, as exclusively reported by Fox News.
The credit goes to the initiator, Utah County Clerk, Amelia Powers Gardner who employed the blockchain-based application as a cost-effective and secured alternative to traditional voting protocol 20 months ago. This brings us to the most important question, with the rising concerns over vote fraud and ballot security; does blockchain hold the key to a secured voting system?
History of Blockchain Voting in the US and Beyond
This might be a novel approach for the presidential election, but it’s not the first time blockchain has been used for elections in the USA. The first use of blockchain application for online voting dates back to the 2016 Utah GOP Presidential Candidate election. It was used by Utah Republican party caucus where the online platform allowed 24,486 voters; including the ones staying overseas (45 countries) to securely cast their ballots using their computers, tablets, or smartphones.
The second time it was used during the 2018 US Federal Elections in the State of West Virginia. A blockchain-powered voting application allowed even the 144 overseas voters from 31 countries to cast their vote securely.
Other countries like Sierra Leon, Estonia, the city of Zug in Switzerland, are some of the places that have implemented blockchain technology to facilitate elections as a pilot project. South Korea, on the other hand, is planning a blockchain-based system that will enable citizens to vote from their homes.
Security Vulnerabilities in the Present System
The COVID-19 pandemic may have pushed the hands of the authorities to keep the option of online voting open for the people considering the social distancing protocols going forward; it might become the mandate for voting. It is easy, cost-effective, hassle-free, and allows overseas voters to cast their democratic rights as well. With blockchain in the mix, e-voting can offer the much-needed security and integrity to elections. But, before we get that far, let’s first analyze the vulnerabilities that the traditional system has, followed by how blockchain addresses the same.
- Media Manipulation: The vulnerabilities begin with the pre-election, where the kind of media consumed by the voters plays part in shaping their shape political opinions. However, due to alleged targeted disinformation media campaigns, the voters might have issues in determining the accuracy of the sources that they are getting the information from. Digital media deceptions during pre-election are not unheard of, on the contrary, there were significant allegations during both the 2016 and 2018 elections in the US. These manipulations, such as computational propaganda, smear campaigns on social media, digitally altered pictures and videos, etc. have a profound effect on the outcome of the election, derailing the democratic process.
- Sabotaging Voter Registration – There have been instances of alleged attacks on the voter registration databases, which can jeopardize the voting process as well. The common targeted practice is that of removal of a certain percentage of voters supporting a candidate from the database through identity alterations, affecting the polls. Sabotaging the registration process of an entire constituency can not only delay but even halt an election. This is also considered an attack on voter privacy, as these voter databases contain PII or personally identifiable information like names, phone numbers, addresses, and likewise. Hackers are known to exploit the PII by selling on dark web markets, using the same to target voters with propaganda.
During the election, the voting process can be tampered with by hacking into the system, which exposes the vulnerabilities of the voting machinery and tabulation software. From a cybersecurity point of view, every stage in the voting process involving some type of software or electronic device connected online can be exploited by hackers.
Manipulation of the reporting mechanisms can lead to the announcement of inaccurate results of the election. Hackers can take over the official social media account, disseminating fake results.
There is a scope for sabotaging during post-election audits as well, which happens when there is disappointment over an election. In this stage, the digital results are compared to the paper ballots. Nevertheless, there always remains a scope of inaccuracy in the post-election audits in the absence of secure voting machinery.
Blockchain Reforming the Election Process
The fundamental attributes of blockchain, i.e., transparency, traceability, accountability, and immutability, along with enhanced cryptographic security has the potential to reform the election process. Supporters of the technology and experts have also gone ahead to explain that the use of blockchain technology to conduct the elections can potentially increase voter participation from overseas as well and improve the security protocols. While there are also theories that blockchain might overcomplicate the election mechanism, negating the same, there are multiple DLT pilot projects worldwide laying the foundation for blockchain-powered voting. Here’s how blockchain can work its magic.
Blockchain’s inherent cryptographic qualities can ensure that the digital news content originates and circulates from an accountable and trusted source. The media consumed by the voters will be cryptographically stamped and vouched for is stamped, which when one cross-references with the immutable records on a DLT platform can prove the provenance of the news and its authenticity. For this to work, the blockchain-media integration has to be on an institutional and media level, in close coordination with both government and non-governmental organizations.
E-voting is a highly debatable issue, which has been time and again thwarted by skeptics who claim that the use of the internet and mobile for voting only makes the whole system more vulnerable to manipulation. While others support it saying that e-voting while increase voter participation, which has been proven in the previous pilot projects across the US, allowing the overseas voters to cast vote as well.
In support of the skeptics, security can be a major issue, but not when combined with blockchain technology. The use of DLT prevents voting manipulations, as each vote is cryptographically secured and accounted for along with the identity of the voter that is registered on the blockchain network. None of the above can be tampered or altered with, thanks to blockchain immutability.
Blockchain can also help in centralizing the management of voter identities. The system will need an assortment of identity data (government-issued IDs & biometric data) gathered during the online registration to match each voter with his/her digital identity within the voter registration database.
The use of public blockchain will allow the voters to audit the ballots to run confirmation on the accuracy of the total number of votes, without disclosing the identity of the voters. For instance, the voters can cast ballots followed by which they will receive a QR code on their devices attached to their vote. Scanning the QR code will allow the voters to be reassured that their vote has been accurately recorded.
As use cases of blockchain-based voting increases around the US and worldwide, it is a positive indication that this might be the future of elections holding the key to its security, sanctity, and integrity.