How Blockchain Can Make Our Next Election More Secure
Welcome to Illini Blockchain’s new series! In this adventure, we will be focusing on the new applications that blockchain will impact in the future. Don’t worry, we will continue to post about essential technologies surrounding blockchain like our latest blog about Ethereum, but in this journey, we aim to answer the question: “So what?” that so much of the public keeps on asking. So, sit back and enjoy, we are starting off with a good one.
January 6, 2021 — rioters storm Capitol Hill and the joint session of Congress assembled inside to formalize the electoral votes and confirm then-President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Chaos ensued resulting in the evacuation of the building, assaults on law enforcement, vandalism of property, occupation of the building for several hours, over 138 injured police officers, and in total, five deaths. This notorious date will live on in infamy for years, and the political division it showcased continues today. But can we learn from this event and ensure it never happens again? That is exactly what we intend to answer in this blog.
The root cause of the insurrection on January 6th was fear of voter fraud, with claims from the Republican party that the election had been stolen and how mail-in voting makes voter fraud even worse — to be clear, in this post we aren’t going to argue about who’s side is correct, however, we will offer a solution so that the disagreement can be completely avoided altogether.
Before the 2020 election, fears that the 2016 election had been hacked by the Russians were deep in many people’s minds, and there were doubts about the 2012 election and the 2008 election before that. The doubts about the most recent election are not new, nor will they go away anytime soon. A solution to solve all of this hysteria surrounding voter fraud is important! It will ensure that no election is fraudulent & prevent events like the Capitol Riots from happening again.
The Domino Effect
Issues like these cause a boundless domino effect of problems on society. Whether or not counting those votes was valid, it opened the eyes to the kind of uprising that can occur when there’s uncertainty in the process of transferring power. Riots, marches, and countless political arguments all stemmed from the result of a faulty system. There will always be problems with how the public sees the government’s decisions, but there should never be a problem with the technology and system behind something as important as voting in elections.
Now you’re probably asking yourself, “Okay great, voter fraud has caused disagreement in the past, but how does blockchain have anything to do with it?” First, we need to recap on how blockchain functions, and why it is inherently secure. As we review the technology we are going to leave out a lot of the specifics. If you would like a more thorough explanation, go check out our original blog post here explaining the basics of blockchain technology with Bitcoin as the main example.
Blockchain, simply put, allows us to transfer valuable transactions without the need for a middleman. In this case, the middleman is the US government, and through the process of voting, we are trusting the US government to correctly and fairly count the number of votes for each candidate.
Adding to the “Chain”
A blockchain network is run by millions of nodes, or peers, which constantly verify, process, and add these transactions to a chain of data that stores the records of the transactions. Each time a transaction takes place, a new ‘block’ is created; a majority of nodes in the network must verify and confirm that the data on the block is correct before adding it to the ‘chain’ of blocks before it. The chain of blocks cannot be changed, meaning it is immutable and that no single node has the power to change the entire block.
Nodes must also solve complex math equations in order to process a block, meaning it is virtually impossible to hack in the first place. Thus, with the cryptography needed to process a block and the immutable data stored on the chain, blockchain is extremely secure and nearly impossible to cheat the system.
Back to Voting
Okay, after that quick refresher, what does this technology actually mean for voting? Well, the inherent security that’s built into blockchain technology means that voting could be essentially fraud-proof. The data stored on each new block would simply have to include who that person voted for, as well as some sort of unique ID linked to only one person. The process for verification would have to include checking that the ID exists, ensuring that an ID has a single vote attributed to it and that the vote is cast at an appropriate time. Officials could then count these votes with complete certainty that the votes are legitimate and have not been tampered with. Here’s a quick graphic to show a potential ballot and its requirements:
Additionally, voting with blockchain technology could have a variety of added benefits. If it’s set up in such a way that voters can vote from any device connected to the network, it could help with situations like the one we found ourselves within 2020 and the coronavirus.
Voting with blockchain could also increase voter turnout. If voters don’t need to leave their rooms to vote nor fill out the additional paperwork needed to vote by mail, then more people would participate in elections.
Further, voting for elections through a blockchain network could also pave the way for direct democracy. The system could be extended to more uses and issues could be voted on directly through the network. Systems such as ballot initiatives, most famous in California with their propositions, could also be added to the blockchain voting network.
Blockchain-powered voting can provide a variety of benefits in addition to making our elections more secure.
However, blockchain voting technology is not without its own challenges; handling such a large quantity of votes could be difficult, and if someone did manage to find a way to hack the system, not only would the election be compromised, but the immutability of blockchain means the changes could not be reversed.
As more users are on a network, the transactions take place at a slower rate, and if a majority of eligible voters in the United States are on the network, each vote could take hours to process.
Yet, if the blockchain system is inherently secure, then the issue of time is trivial. Votes from the 2020 election were still being recounted in Arizona in May of 2021, seven months after the election took place. With a blockchain voting system, votes would never have to be recounted, and while the original vote may take a little longer, it saves months of time spent recounting ballots by hand.
Further, most hacks of blockchain are known as 51% attacks; if a hacker was able to amass a majority of the nodes on a network by controlling more than half of all the computing power of a given network, they would then have the power to rewrite the chain however they please. Nonetheless, these kinds of attacks can be prevented by making the network large enough that controlling a majority of the nodes would be infeasible. In the 2018 midterm elections, there were more than 230,000 polling places across the United States; if each polling place was replaced with one node to verify transactions, it would mean a hacker would somehow need to gain control over more than 115,000 of the computing power for those nodes. This analysis doesn’t even take into account other security measures — like the odds of hacking the hash code — which add to the difficulty of a hack.
Voting Made Simpler
Currently, there are a few companies that are trying to implement blockchain into voting; in the 2018 midterm elections, West Virginia used Boston-based Voatz to allow overseas troops to vote from over 31 countries. While no issues were found with that election themselves, an MIT paper brought up security concerns and led to the system not being implemented in the 2020 primary elections.
Another blockchain-based voting system from Cleveland, Votem, has had more success. With eleven elections completed, including Montana’s 2016 general election, and customers including Washington D.C., the city of Detroit, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Votem has tallied over 8.2 million online votes without any issues.
Votem has also implemented an EIP-20 complaint token named VAST, an acronym for four elements crucial to a successful voting system — verifiability, accessibility, security, and transparency. Tokens can be purchased for the number of potential voters and be used for any number of elections, but only one election at a time. The voters would use these tokens through the CastIron Platform, which leverages the Tendermint framework and consists of the following steps: 1) Those in charge of the election would create the contest. 2) Voters would register and be authenticated depending on the legal requirements of the election. 3) Ballots would be tailored to each voter’s state, region, county, city, etc. 4) Ballots are then marked by the voters and submitted. 5) Ballots are first encrypted, then added to the blockchain record. 6) Voters receive a secure QR-code as a receipt to verify that their vote was cast. 7) Votes are tabulated and then reported for public release and audits.
While there are current companies trying to implement these systems across the country, some security concerns still remain and more improvement is always necessary.
A More Direct Democracy
In essence, blockchain-powered voting could make the voting system fraud-proof, increase voter turnout, & pave the way to more direct involvement in democracy.
While blockchain has its challenges, advances in technology could increase speed, and setting up the network properly could prevent any attacks on the system.
Blockchain technology allows for systems we’ve known all our lives to run more securely and in turn eliminate controversy.
Make sure to stay on the lookout for the next post in this series — a dive into how blockchain can make supply chains more transparent and efficient!
Matt Brotnow |@mbrotnow20 | https://medium.com/@mbrotnow20
Resources We Used
- 2021 United States Capitol Attack: — This resource was used to understand the background behind the Capitol attacks on January 6th that we mention in our post. The article reveals the planning and turmoil building up prior to the events and the outlash that ensued.
- What is Blockchain?: — The Forbes article we relied on for explanations of basic fundamentals of blockchain that were used in the post can be found at this source. The more in-depth topics discussed relating to blockchain can be found in our previous blog posts.
- How Blockchain Technology can Prevent Voter Fraud: — Investopedia’s article was the first source that was used when connecting blockchain technology and US elections.
- Election Issues | Campaign Reform: — This website was mainly used to collect information and data on elections and issues surrounding them.
- West Virginia Use of Voatz: — This website was used to find important information regarding prior implementation of blockchain technology in elections.
- Votem: — The website of one of the voting apps, this site was used to collect information on what the current implementation of the system looks like.