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Home » Blockchain, Elections and Governance

Blockchain for elections: Silver bullet or bust?

Submitted by on 24 Oct 2018 – 11:39

Blockchain, and the distributed ledger technology underpinning it, is likely to have transformational applications in financial services, identity management, voting and elections, healthcare, logistics and public e-services. But is blockchain really the “silver bullet” for election integrity that many claim it to be, asks Mike Summers, Online Voting Program Director, Smartmatic

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last two years, you will no doubt have heard about cryptocurrencies and in particular bitcoin, which was the first digital currency to achieve global notoriety and to realise subsequent value as an asset.  Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies are underpinned by a fundamental technology called blockchain, the use of which has exploded to support uses above and beyond digital currency, into supply chain management, energy distribution, law enforcement, music streaming, copyright control and even wine-making!

For the purposes of explanation, blockchain is a decentralised digital ledger or database of transactions or information. The decentralised nature of blockchain means that there is no central server or authority to trust, which means that the database of transactions is held and updated independently by each participant (“node”) in a network. Any changes to the information in the database are reflected instantaneously to all other nodes so an exact copy of the database exists on all nodes in the network.

Supporting this distributed approach is an underlying cryptographic protocol which organises the information stored in the ledger into sequential blocks of information which contain a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a digital timestamp and the transactional data. The blocks are linked or “chained” and the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires consensus of the majority of nodes in the network. In this respect, blockchain offers an excellent tamper-proof mechanism for demonstrating the integrity of recorded information in a permanent and verifiable way. It is, therefore, no wonder that technology investors are clamouring to pump money into startups which are building products and services around blockchain.

One of the potential uses for blockchain is within the election process and in particular for online voting. Online voting, which was pioneered in Estonia, is understandably gaining popularity with election management bodies (EMB) who are seeking to address the ever-increasing decline in election participation, which, according to a 2017 World Bank report, has dropped 10% over the last 25 years. The promise of tamper-proof voting systems is clearly appealing to EMB and governments who are looking to make voting more accessible and convenient whilst being able to demonstrate the integrity of election processes in the face of a perceived increase in potential cyberthreats to the democratic process.

Blockchain is something that leading election technology companies are, therefore, keen to incorporate into their product portfolio. It has been an area of active research at Smartmatic since 2014. The first ever implementation of blockchain in a binding online voting project was conducted in 2016 for a presidential primary election for the Republican Party in Utah. In this project a private, permissioned blockchain was used as a mechanism to demonstrate the integrity of the digital votes in the electronic ballot box and to prove that no votes had been deleted or tampered with and no ineligible votes added. Since then, there has been a rush of other companies seeking to capitalise on the blockchain phenomenon and to specifically jump onto the blockchain voting bandwagon.

But is blockchain really the “silver bullet” for election integrity that many claim it to be?

The recent volatility in the price of Bitcoin has raised the question about the viability and promise of cryptocurrencies and sceptics have also raised concerns over the technical performance of some blockchain implementations. The reality is that, like all early stage innovations, blockchain has certain limitations and some blockchain platforms have experienced considerable “teething issues” which may not be immediately obvious among the almost daily claims of blockchain salvation.

Firstly, many public blockchain platforms are slow when it comes to performance and scalability. Bitcoin is estimated as having a transaction processing capacity of between 3.3 and seven transactions per second, which would make it unwieldy at best and unusable at worst for large scale governmental elections.

Secondly, the public nature of many blockchains raises issues around voter anonymity and privacy, which are fundamental properties of the democratic process. Additionally, the very public and decentralised nature of many blockchains is at odds with the standard governance model of elections, in which EMBs are singularly responsible and held accountable for validating election results and verifying the integrity of end-to-end electoral processes.

It is also worth noting that blockchain in splendid isolation does little to contribute to the security of the online voting process. Fully secure, provable online voting requires a plethora of other processes and technologies, such as end-to-end vote encryption from the point of casting, digital signatures as a mechanism to validate vote eligibility and vote integrity, and verifiable cryptographic processes as well as other logical, physical and procedural security processes. So as with any supposedly “game-changing” solution, it’s critical not to simply believe the hype around blockchain!

That said, ongoing research into and development ofblockchain and other distributed ledger technologies will flush out and ultimately solve many of the early-stage performance and privacy issues. Our research team at Smartmaticisvery much at the forefront of these problem-solving efforts and is a key partner in a European Union Horizon 2020-funded research project called PRIVILEDGE, which seeks to solve the issues of voter privacy whilst still harnessing the immutable and integrity-proving properties of blockchain.

In conclusion, as it stands today blockchain on its own is not apanacea for online voting or the solution to help EMB run better elections. However, when applied to specific areas of the election process and when used in conjunction with other security, verification and auditable processes, it can help improve the integrity of an election in a public way. It is, however, only one of the many toolsets that need to be used by governments to help them run better, verifiable and auditable elections to help foster public trust in the election process.