In the wake of the most intensely anticipated — and certainly the most Tweeted and meme-ified — presidential debate in history, I spoke on a panel last week on election and voting tech at the New York County Lawyers Association. (Thanks to my partner in crime Joe Bambara for organizing a great session, and to panelists David Webb and Jim Kastis for their insights.)
Just like the debate — ok, maybe not just like the debate — our discussion had moments of confrontation, in particular around the concern that too much focus on technology solutions can come at the cost of ignoring very real human issues.
For instance, “data cleanup” of voter rolls — i.e., purging — can potentially disenfranchise thousands of voters, as seen in recently in Brooklyn during the Democratic primary (a situation with roots in the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision). As several audience members took pains to point out, not everything can be “fixed” with technology.
On the other hand, technology is just a tool, and it can be employed for good or for evil (or neither), so most of our panel focused on how technology can improve the way our democratic processes work.
Why the Cypherpunks (Probably) Laughed At Me
My portion of the panel was devoted to how blockchain technology may play a role in improving voting procedures in the future. I started, though, with some personal history. Way back in 1992, I worked for a committee of the US House of Representatives headed by NC Congressman Charlie Rose to implement a radical new technology: Constituent email.
Members of Congress were generally terrified of the idea of — gasp! — allowing their constituents to email their offices directly. Seems silly now, but at the time there was real fear that staffers would be overwhelmed by the deluge of emails, or become embroiled in back-and-forth discussions without enough forethought.
Fortunately, seven brave congressional offices joined our pilot project and we launched the system — which required residents in each Member’s district to send in postcards for verification before they could use it, and promised responses by to any emails by postal mail — in June 1993. Here was part of the press release, just to illustrate the changes 23 years brings:
Date: 03 Jun 93 15:41:15 -0500
Subject: press release
TEXT OF PRESS RELEASE FROM COMMITTEE ON HOUSE ADMINISTRATION, U.S.
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, DATED JUNE 3,1993
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For further information please contact:
Lance Koonce (202) 225-7922
HOUSE ANNOUNCES PUBLIC ELECTRONIC MAIL SERVICEThis ground-breaking new service will allow citizens to communicate
directly with their Member of Congress by electronic mail. The House of Representatives has established an electronic gateway to the Internet, the vast computer network that is used currently by over twelve million people worldwide. Participating Members of the House have been assigned public mailboxes which may be accessed by their constituents from their home computers. In addition, many libraries, schools and other public institutions now provide, or soon will provide, public access to the Internet.
Even in 1993, though, there were concerns over issues of privacy and security, and the press release ended up hitting a couple of electronic mailing lists at the time (Here’s a copy still online). Some of these mailing lists were run by people in the Cypherpunks movement. Presumably the people in those groups were not citing Congress for being forward thinking, but — aside from laughing at the government’s attempt to call itself “ground breaking”—were concerned about the intent to collect email addresses and other personal information.
The Cypherpunk movement was and is concerned with enhancing privacy through strong cryptography. Although we still do not (and may never) know who created the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, Bitcoin and the blockchain framework that makes it possible are part of the direct legacy of the Cypherpunks, as described in this article from CoinDesk by Jameson Lopp.
Blockchain for Voting
Just on the face of it, utilizing cryptography to secure voting records makes sense, and has been discussed for some time (for an overview and citations see this Wikipedia article on end-to-end auditable voting systems).
Voting systems are, in a sense, distributed systems, and thus the idea of using a distributed network with the inherent features of a blockchain to secure voting records also seems logical. Many proponents of blockchain technology already see it as potentially democratizing force — the public and decentralized nature of the ledger allow for inclusion, accountability and less control by corporate and governmental players.
The general idea for blockchain-based voting would be to use distributed ledgers as an aid to registering voters (by providing each voter a unique identification string or key) and then to record each vote to the ledger. How each step would best be accomplished is very much a question still being examined, but in theory here are some pros and cons of blockchain-based voting systems:
— Recordation of votes on public, immutable ledger
— Enhance voter privacy
— Possible ability to correct or alter vote before it is final
— Real-time access to tallies
— Records are tamper-resistant once recorded
— Records are accessible by multiple systems
— Ultimately, may help move to online voting (including on mobile devices)
— Theft or hacking of cryptographic “keys” held by voters (i.e., falsification of identity)
— Blockchain technology itself only provide immutability once the data is recorded; can’t be its own gatekeeper
— Hacking of online systems that record votes to the blockchain (or query the blockchain for info)
— Who bears the cost of the transactions?
A few companies have started looking into blockchain voting, although the technology has not yet been used for any major elections. Blockchain Technologies Corp., which makes Bitcoin ATM machines, has developed the Votewatcher blockchain-based voting machine. The system uses paper ballots with a unique identifier and a special machine that scans the ballot offline, and saves the voting data permanently to a blockchain.
FollowMyVote, by contrast, seeks to create an online, open source voting platform, whereby voters download virtual voting booth software and submit identity information to a party that has been pre-approved by the organization hosting the election to verify the voter’s identity. Once verified, the voter requests a ballot and securely submits it to blockchain-based ballot box.
There have been other efforts along these lines. In 2013, Denmark’s Liberal Alliance became the first political party to use a blockchain-based system for internal elections. In early 2016, it was announced that developers in the Ukraine, along with U.S. developers, were developing an Ethereum-based voting system.
All of these efforts are in their infancy. Yet blockchain-based voting systems hold real promise, and we have the Cypherpunks to thank for it, at least in part.