Free and fair elections are a central feature of democracy. As the world becomes more digital and mobile phones more widespread, online voting and blockchain technology have the potential to make voting more accessible and improve election integrity.
This second article for the Blockchain Philanthropy Foundation examines three real-world examples of blockchain technology being used to run actual, binding elections:
- Voatz — State of West Virginia, 2018 Federal Elections, USA
- Votem — Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2017 & 2018 Inductee Voting, USA
- Smartmatic-Cybernetica — Utah GOP Presidential Candidate elections, 2016, USA
Although early stage, these blockchain initiatives demonstrate that blockchain can be used to create secure, online voting in government and private elections. The potential benefits are huge given the current problems relating to election integrity and accessibility around the world.
On the other hand, voting and cybersecurity experts have strong concerns about whether online voting can be secure and whether blockchain technology is necessary for online voting. To better understand these issues, it is necessary to separate the concerns into two parts. Firstly, I explore governance and privacy issues within blockchain voting systems. Different blockchain architectures can affect who controls, validates and views data on the blockchain. Examining how these case studies address governance and privacy issues in their blockchain platforms can help us understand the current criticisms of blockchain technology in online voting. Secondly, I look at security issues relating to the use of personal mobile phones and computers for online voting. Blockchain technology is often one part of the end-to-end solution in electronic voting. Cybersecurity issues relating to how users access voting systems affect blockchain as well as non-blockchain voting systems. To separate these cybersecurity issues from blockchain technology, I look at two online voting case studies that do not use blockchain technology. Interestingly, although cybersecurity concerns are very real, these case studies demonstrate the viability and long-term use of secure online voting, including the case in Estonia where online voting has been used for government elections since 2005.
While all the blockchain case studies appear to successfully address the security concerns relating to online voting, only Voatz and Votem believe they have addressed governance and privacy issues. Smartmatic-Cybernetica believes these issues need further examination and continue to research these issues as part of a European consortium. These differences highlight the fact that blockchain technology in online voting is still early stage and we need significantly more testing and validating before it can become mainstream. It is worth noting that blockchain technology has already moved at a quicker pace than most people anticipated. The current applications are really impressive and it promises to solve some really big problems — It is definitely worth learning more about.
What are the current problems in voting?
Government elections around the world are facing increasing security threats and concerns over election integrity.¹ Paper ballot voting is still the most common form of voting worldwide. It is the least susceptible to cyberattacks but very susceptible to human error and fraud. While many countries are moving to electronic voting machines, they are vulnerable to cyberattacks due to outdated, poorly designed or implemented technology. At the 2017 Def Con conference, hackers demonstrated that they could hack into each and every one of the 22 different voting machines purchased from U.S. government auction sites and eBay.² In some cases, nations that had introduced electronic voting have reverted back to paper voting due to security concerns.³
Getting people to vote is another significant election challenge. Voter turnout has been declining around the world since the 1990s. Worldwide, approximately 230 million eligible voters are not registered to vote, and those who are registered are still failing to turn up to vote. There are many reasons for this, including the lack of identification and access to voting booths for voters as well as apathy and mistrust of the political system. Unfortunately, these problems are not limited to politically unstable or economically disadvantaged countries. The United States has one of the lowest voter turnouts (42.5%) in the world.⁴ Incredibly, 10% of eligible U.S. voters do not have the proper forms of identification to satisfy voter identification laws.⁵ Only 7% of the 3 million eligible U.S. citizens who live outside the United States voted in the 2016 presidential elections.⁶ Approximately one-third of U.S. non-voters said that the primary reason they did not vote was because they couldn’t make it to the polls.⁷ Multiple surveys indicate they would be significantly more likely to vote if they could vote online.⁸
How can blockchain help?
Online voting built on top of blockchain technology is very appealing because of the accessibility and the integrity that it can bring to elections. Blockchain’s fundamental characteristics — immutability, accountability and security — drive the technology’s potential for securely maintaining voter registration records and recording votes.⁹ In such a system, voting data is inputted into blocks that are timestamped, encrypted, and “locked” to prevent tampering and unauthorised viewing. The use of distributed ledger technology (DLT) means information is not centralised, ensuring all data is copied on nodes across the network. Information cannot be lost, and there are no central points for cyberattacks such as database deletion or denial of service attacks. The underlying peer-to-peer network provides a validation mechanism that protects the integrity of the data being locked into each block. To prevent voter fraud, a voting application may employ several identification and authentication methods before votes are cast.¹⁰ This digitisation of voter registration and voting processes has also been proven to make elections cheaper and easier to run.
Current blockchain initiatives in election voting
While there are numerous companies working on blockchain solutions in voting, only a small number have built the technology and systems to run binding elections.¹¹
Case Study #1: Voatz — State of West Virginia, 2018 Federal Elections, USA
In the first use of blockchain technology in a U.S. federal election, the State of West Virginia used Voatz’s mobile voting application to enable overseas voters to vote in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. A total of 144 voters from 31 countries participated in the pilot. The Voatz application relies on blockchain technology to create an immutable record of the votes cast. It also uses cybersecurity software to detect malware on smartphones, and biometrics for identification and authentication.
In 2017, music fans were able to use Votem’s blockchain-based mobile voting platform to vote for the 2018 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Votem processed over 1.8 million votes without fraud, compromise, attacks or hacking of any kind, marking it the largest use of online voting using blockchain technology to date.The Votem system was recently used for the 2018 Inductee Vote.
Smartmatic-Cybernetica delivered the world’s first online election using blockchain technology for the Utah Republican party caucus in 2016. Nearly 90% of voters registered to vote online. The platform enabled 24,486 voters to securely cast their ballots from 45 different countries using their computer, tablet or smartphone.
While Voatz and Votem are early-stage U.S. startups, Smartmatic-Cybernetica is a European partnership of established companies whose non-blockchain voting technology has been used to run elections around the world since 2005. This shows an existent wide-ranging interest in blockchain-based online voting solutions in order to increase voter participation and improve election security.¹² These case studies demonstrate that blockchain technology has been successfully used for both government and private elections. In all cases, the online elections were run without any security issues and with overwhelmingly positive response from voters and participants.
However, many security and election experts remain sceptical of blockchain technology’s ability to scale or fix problems that are inherent in online voting.¹³
“Mobile and internet voting technologies are not presently secure enough for large-scale applications. Blockchain technology and its surrounding architecture, including threat of malware on personal devices, make this form of remote voting currently impractical for large-scale or nationwide practice. Malware detection on personal devices can lead to security vulnerabilities and energy consumption for vendors hosting the application is costly.”¹⁴ — Irene Solaiman of the Harvard Kennedy School.
Smartmatic-Cybernetica, the developers behind blockchain Case Study #3, are also sceptical that blockchain technology is necessary for online voting. Smartmatic-Cybernetica has been building electronic voting solutions for countries around the world including online voting in Estonia since 2005. They are concerned by governance and privacy issues that surround blockchain voting.
Governance and Privacy Issues in Blockchain
In terms of the end-to-end solution, voters can access the voting systems using computers and mobile phones, and blockchain technology is used to store and update voting data. Aside from the general security issues relating to internet and mobile technology, there are specific concerns over the use of blockchain technology in elections. These concerns relate to governance and privacy, that is, who makes the decisions on the blockchain and what kind of information is shared about the participants.
Public, Permissionless Blockchain — The Ideal System
Many people believe that blockchain systems should be decentralised, public and permissionless in the same way that Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin operate.¹⁵ Such systems eliminate centralised intermediaries and therefore no single trusted entity is required to operate or can potentially corrupt the voting system. This type of blockchain is completely open — anyone can read the data in the blockchain and participate in the consensus protocol to secure the network and add blocks. In theory, these open systems are particularly appealing for countries with poor systems or corrupt governments.
However, there are some drawbacks to using completely decentralised blockchain architecture. In practice, public permissionless blockchains can result in unlimited participants and copies of the distributed ledger, which can slow down the network and require a lot of energy to run. There are also issues of privacy and confidentiality that make public permissionless systems less appropriate for sectors such as banking, health and voting. In terms of voting, democratic processes typically require individual votes to be private (secret ballots) to ensure that people are free to vote in any way they wish and to avoid the potential for people to sell their votes. In addition, voters provide personal information to register to vote and would not want this and other voter registry information to be publicly available.
Blockchain Voting Requires Confidentiality
Blockchain technology has evolved to include public (permissionless) and private (permissioned) blockchain systems.¹⁶ Private and permissioned systems continue to use distributed ledger technology, but vary in terms of the privacy of data and transactions and whether the participants need to be invited or require ‘permission’ to be part of the consensus process that determines which blocks of data are verified and added to the blockchain.¹⁷
Permissioned Blockchain Usage in Current Projects
Each of the blockchain voting cases studies mentioned use permissioned blockchain. The Voatz ‘permissioned’ blockchain is built using the HyperLedger blockchain framework first created by IBM, now supported by the Linux foundation. In order to participate in the permissioned blockchain, a voter or auditor must first be verified. Voatz believed that the initial rollout of a blockchain-based election technology benefits greatly from using permissioned verifiers as it prevents intentional bad actors from participating as verifiers. Voatz also believes this accurately emulates how elections are presently administered in the United States.¹⁸ In the West Virginia pilot, 4 to 16 verified validating nodes were used, split between multiple cloud providers, each of which are geographically distributed. In the future, the Secretary of State or an independent State Election Board can increase the number of nodes and designate which organizations (e.g. political parties, universities, the media, NGOs, non-profits, auditors, etc.) can participate in the blockchain network as verifiers. Votem and Smartmatic-Cybernetica also used permissioned blockchain.
Permissioned Blockchains Improve Efficiency
In addition to improving confidentiality, fewer nodes and simpler consensus mechanisms mean that permissioned systems can be faster and more efficient than permissionless systems.¹⁹ This helps to mitigate concerns that public permissionless blockchain is energy intensive and not scalable.
Governance Issues in Permissioned Blockchain
Permissioned blockchain voting systems are controlled by the companies that develop them, and even when they bring in third-party verifiers like government agencies, non-profits and auditors, it is possible that the developers can change the rules that run the blockchain or choose verifiers that are or can be biased and unduly influence the system. These governance issues are less likely to be a problem in well-designed blockchain systems and well-functioning democracies that can put in appropriate checks and balances. However, in countries without strong democratic systems, governance of the blockchain could be problematic.
Privacy Issues in Blockchain Voting
While most of the blockchain solutions reviewed appear to use encryption and other processes to ensure voter information is not stored and that votes cannot be made public, many voting experts and participants remain concerned that these systems may not be secure or well designed.
“In many countries, governments and regulators often have legal responsibilities to validate election results and verify the integrity of the electoral process.”²⁰ — Mike Summers, Smartmatic-Cybernetica Centre of Excellence for Internet Voting
In order for voting systems to be transparent and publicly auditable, data needs to be publicly accessible. This is at odds with the need to keep voter information and votes confidential and is a concern for voting experts. Voatz deals with this issue by building auditing and privacy into the process. They directly worked with the State of West Virginia and independent third-party companies to audit the system. Additionally, they run a bug bounty program for community vetting of its platform releases. Once votes are cast, voters receive an automatic digital receipt. When election officials access the votes, a paper ballot is generated for each mobile vote that can be compared to the voter’s digital receipt and the blockchain record. This acts as an audit mechanism and a hard-copy backup.
There is no evidence that there were any security or privacy issues associated with any of the three blockchain voting case studies. However, these are early stage projects and further testing and validation will be required. As systems scale, and are used in countries and jurisdictions with different participants, rules and beliefs, ensuring systems are private but auditable will be important to ensuring voter confidence and the integrity of voting systems.
Is using blockchain technology to increase security and voter participation necessary? To better examine this issue, the next section looks at current online voting solutions that do not employ the use of blockchain technology.
Online Voting — Non-Blockchain Solutions
Online voting without the use of blockchain technology has been successfully used for government elections in Estonia since 2005, and Australia since 2011.
Non-Blockchain Case Study #1: Smartmatic-Cybernetica, i-Voting — Government Elections, Estonia (2005 — present)
Estonia is one of the most advanced digital societies in the world and has been using online voting for elections since 2005. While paper voting is still being used, more than 30% of voters in the 2014 and 2015 elections cast their votes over the internet. A voter can use their state-issued ID-card or mobile-ID to log onto the system and cast their ballot from any internet-connected computer anywhere in the world. Although i-Voting is not currently possible on smart devices — The i-Voting system was developed prior to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets — Smartmatic-Cybernetica expect to introduce support for mobile voting in future elections. The government estimates that i-Voting saves over 11,000 working days per election.
Non-Blockchain Case Study #2: Scytl, iVote — NSW State Elections, Australia (2011 — present)
The New South Wales (NSW) government used online voting in the 2011 and 2015 State Elections. The iVote system was available for people with disabilities, those who experience difficulties reading and people who live more than 20 kilometres from a polling place or are travelling on polling day. In 2015, 283,669 votes were cast using the iVote system. Voters could cast their vote using their computer, smartphone or tablet. An independent survey reported that 97% of voters were satisfied or very satisfied with iVote.
Although, the i-Voting and iVote systems were separately developed, they have some key similarities:
- Developed and operated by large, established electronic voting and election management companies with experience running elections around the world.
- Use cryptographic processes to secure the voting process and data. They do not use blockchain technology.
- Despite various allegations of security problems with these online systems, the companies and governments using these systems have not found any evidence for these claims and plan to continue using these systems in future elections.
In the case of online voting, experts are particularly concerned with mobile device security weaknesses, phishing scams or other identity security issues that make online systems highly vulnerable to hacking. Online voting companies believe they have been able to address these issues using encryption, cybersecurity software and biometrics for security and authentication.
Voting experts are also concerned that voting from personal devices could allow voter coercion or vote buying. Online voting companies address these concerns by putting processes in place to ensure votes remain confidential and allow voters to revote at any time up until the close of elections. The experiences in Estonia and Australia would appear to demonstrate that online voting without blockchain technology can be secure. However, mobile phones are still a relatively new technology, and security concerns about the internet and mobile technology will be ongoing problems for online voting.
What’s next for blockchain?
The blockchain voting case studies demonstrate that blockchain can be used to create secure, online voting in government and private elections. As with any early stage technology, further testing and validation is required but this is especially the case for voting technology. Election voting is such an essential piece of democracy that there is very little room for error or tolerance for risk. Any changes to how we vote will and should be highly scrutinised and tested to ensure that elections will be fair and free. This places a high burden on emerging technology such as electronic voting, the use of mobile devices and the use of blockchain technology.
Over the next few months, Voatz is using several independent, outside auditors to assess the use of the State of West Virginia pilot program. The results of that assessment, as well new and ongoing pilot programs by Voatz, Votem and other blockchain organisations, should provide more insights into the feasibility and benefits of using blockchain technology for governmental and non-governmental voting.
Smartmatic-Cybernetica continues to research blockchain and distributed ledger technology as part of a consortium of European software companies and research organisations. In January 2018, they were awarded €4.5 million in funding from the European Commission Horizon 2020 programme to advance security and privacy protocols in distributed ledger technologies.²¹ The results of this research could greatly advance online voting technologies that use blockchain and distributed ledger technology.
Further detail on each of the case studies summarised in this article can be found here.
Disclaimer: This is not investment advice or endorsement of any blockchain technology, cryptocurrency or specific provider, service or offering. Blockchain technology is an early stage technology that is constantly changing and has many unknowns. Cryptocurrencies are speculative, complex and involve significant risks — they are highly volatile and sensitive to many factors. Consider your own circumstances, and obtain your own advice, before relying on this information. You should also verify the nature of any product or service (including its legal status and relevant regulatory requirements) before making any decisions.
Written by Dr. Denise Tambanis for the Blockchain Philanthropy Foundation, supporting global charities and accelerating humanitarian initiatives through blockchain technology. For comments and questions regarding this article, please contact the author.
1. After the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the CIA, FBI, and NSA stated with “high confidence” that the Russian government conducted information operations to influence the election. In addition, hackers conducted illicit cyber activities probing election-related documents such as voter registration databases. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/defending-vote-casting-using-blockchain-based-mobile-voting-applications-government
2. At the conference in August 2018, an eleven-year old was able to hack into the Florida Secretary of State’s election website in less than 10 minutes. https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/election-hacking-lessons-from-the-2018-def-con-hackers-conference
3. In a 2016 report, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) report that eight countries, six of which were in Europe, abandoned the use of e-voting mainly due to security concerns. https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/publications/voter-turnout-trends-around-the-world.pdfhttps://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/02/dutch-will-count-all-election-ballots-by-hand-to-thwart-cyber-hacking
7. Other studies suggest specific reasons for not voting include illness or disability, lack of transport, unable to get time off from work or have personal duties. https://votem.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/The-Future-of-Voting-Study.pdf
8. In the United States, domestic citizens were up to 33% more likely to vote and overseas citizens were nearly 50% more likely to vote. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/defending-vote-casting-using-blockchain-based-mobile-voting-applications-government
10. Digital identification cards for constituents such as those used in Estonia, are a possible means of identification. Biometric identification, like facial recognition software, is another form that uses physical characteristics to authenticate users. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/defending-vote-casting-using-blockchain-based-mobile-voting-applications-government#_ftn17
11. Other blockchain initiatives in voting include Follow My Vote, Democracy Earth and Horizon State. At the time of writing, Follow My Vote had not updated its website or social media for more than a year. It is possible it is working in stealth mode but no recent information was available. https://followmyvote.com Democracy Earth is currently in the process of raising funds and does not appear to have any live blockchain projects.https://token.democracy.earth Horizon State raised funds in November 2017 and reported that its blockchain voting system would be used to conduct a New Zealand party leadership contest in December 2018. No updated information was available at the time of writing. https://horizonstate.com/media/
16. Even within these types, the lines are not always clear. There are also technical differences in cryptographic processes and how consensus is achieved. https://medium.com/@lkolisko/in-depth-on-differences-between-public-private-and-permissioned-blockchains-aff762f0ca24
17. Distributed ledger technology uses independent computers to record, share and synchronize data. It uses a distributed, decentralized, shared and replicated ledger.