It’s Time for #Online #Voting

Messing with polling stations is one of the most common voter suppression tactics. Across the country, polling stations have been closed in minority neighborhoods, had their locations changed from election to election, and have been kept understaffed, or inaccessible, or ill-equipped, so that voters must stand in line for hours.

These tactics work to lower voter turnout and undermine confidence in the electoral process. In the 2016 election, only 55.4 percent of eligible voters actually voted — one of the lowest turnouts in two decades. In the same year, only 29 percent of Americans were very confident that the ballots cast nationwide would be counted as intended, and only two-thirds of Americans were very confident that their own ballot would be counted as intended.

Our democracy depends on addressing these vulnerabilities. The more that eligible voters participate in elections and the more transparent and durable the process, the more legitimate the outcome. Fortunately, a simple solution to the problem exists, if we allow citizens to vote online using their smartphone or home computer.

Online voting isn’t a silver bullet. It wouldn’t thwart political disinformation campaigns that rely on false tweets or bogus Facebook pages, and it wouldn’t be a solution to the problems presented by gerrymandering. However, done properly, online voting could boost voter participation, avoid administrative errors at polling stations, and help restore the public’s trust in the electoral process and democracy.

Until now, the internet as we know it has generally failed to meet basic voting system requirements: A vote must be cast and counted for the intended candidate, counted only once, remain anonymous, and be verifiable after the fact, even amid a power outage.

The key weakness of early online voting systems was the inability to solve what cryptographers called the “double spend problem.” When we send a file on the internet, we’re actually sending a copy of that file; the original remains in our possession. This is acceptable for sharing information but unacceptable for recording votes in elections. The possibility that individuals could cast their ballots multiple times for a candidate made these systems useless — just as vulnerable as paper ballot systems. Points of failure included susceptibility to hackers, coding bugs, and human error. With enough resources, any rogue could “stuff” a digital ballot box with illegitimate votes.

The good news is that building a workable, scalable, and inclusive online voting system is now possible, thanks to blockchain technologies. A blockchain is a peer-to-peer network for exchanging anything of value, from stocks, money, intellectual property, and, yes, votes. In a blockchain-based system, public trust in the voting process is achieved not by faith in one single institution, but through cryptography, code, and collaboration among citizens, government agencies, and other stakeholders.

Traditionally in elections, trust is concentrated in the hands of state and federal agencies and other civic institutions, which are prone to hacking, fraud, or human error (think the Democratic National Committee, the Election Assistance Commission, or the California Department of Motor Vehicles). On a blockchain, a distributed network of computers works to verify transactions, with batches of them ordered and recorded in blocks. Each block is linked cryptographically to the preceding block, forming a secure chain or ledger that anyone in the network can see but no single entity can hack or manipulate.

An attacker who wanted to spend the same dollar twice or cast the same vote twice would need to take command of 51% of the computers in the network simultaneously and rewrite the entire history of each dollar or vote on the blockchain in a short time frame, which is exceedingly difficult. Since the network is widely distributed, it could survive a natural disaster or an attack on critical infrastructure. Thus, blockchain prevents double-spending, enabling us to run secure, trustworthy online transactions including voting.

In elections run on blockchains, citizens use digital voter IDs to prove who they are. Each digital ID is unique to each person, cryptographically secured with a private key (a unique password) on the person’s device, and made up of multiple data points, or factors: proofs of residence and citizenship, biometric data, and voter registration, to name a few. Citizens open their app with their thumbprints or retinal scans and then cast their vote with their private key. The more data points used to create the digital ID, the harder the identity is to replicate and hack. Though voter registration is still required in most states, a robust multi-factor voter ID could eventually replace the registration altogether, as the combination of many data points would make it highly reliable.

As citizens, we can trust the outcome of such a voting system: voters can check the blockchain to verify that their vote was counted correctly, candidates can trust the vote count and election officials can verify and audit the results. Because the system is decentralized, no government or hacker can change the results without immediate detection.

Hackers could still attempt to steal votes — but they’d have to do so one voter at a time, since there is no centralized database to hack — and they couldn’t recast those votes without the corresponding secure voter ID. And, because of the clear chain of custody, citizens could prove that their voting tokens had been stolen. The downside of voting over a blockchain is limited to a delay in the process; to address this, governments could grant each citizen a backup voting token as an added precaution.

Blockchain voting achieves privacy for the individual and improves transparency for the system as a whole. Voting systems will be less costly, more efficient, and more accessible while eliminating most, if not all, opportunities for suppression, fraud, or sham charges of fraud. To be fully inclusive and ensure that citizens who lack internet access can still vote, paper ballots can remain an alternative.

Several start-ups such as Follow My Vote and Voatz are developing blockchain-based solutions for online voting. At the Blockchain Research Institute, we studied the Cleveland-based Votem. Its clients, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the National Radio Hall of Fame, deployed Votem’s mobile voting applications successfully in selecting inductees. Votem authenticated each voter’s identity, provided a chain of custody, and proved itself fast, secure, auditable, and convenient.

Absentee ballots offer a perfect test for blockchain-based mobile voting in government. This is no small matter: Hundreds of thousands of eligible voters live or serve overseas every election, and they face high hurdles to democratic participation. They must remember to vote early, because tens of thousands of absentee ballots arrive too late to be counted. Concerns over security and anonymity decrease online submissions, even when they’re available.

Online voting is not without challenges: Technical standards must be consistent across jurisdictions, and software and hardware would need to be audited regularly. The early days of blockchain-based voting would have growing pains, and election boards would need to test solutions at local and state levels before a national rollout.

West Virginia has built a mobile voting app for absentee voters in the midterm elections. West Virginians serving in the military and their families have already begun casting their ballots through a blockchain-based app on their phone. This makes voting much easier, boosts the trust voters have in the security of the process, and reduces the number of rejected ballots.

There is no shortage of politicians in power who benefit from the inaccessibility, insecurity, or lack of public faith in the electoral process. They have every reason to cast doubt upon, or outright oppose, an improvement in the way elections are run. But with the benefits of blockchain-based online voting so clear, citizens should insist that voters’ interests come first.

Alex Tapscott is Co-Founder of the Blockchain Research Institute and a former member of the Elections Canada Advisory Board.