U.S. Elections: Will Blockchain Help?

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Darylann Elmi

With only ten more weeks left before Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020, the U.S. elections are heating up. As with so many other issues, there is a sharp divide over whether vote counts will be accurate, according to a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.

Mail-in voting has come under intense scrutiny as many states dramatically increase the use of absentee ballots in an attempt to ensure less crowded polling stations. Voter confidence in a fair election, however, appears to be a reflection of the sharp partisan divide — 73% of Republicans believe that mail-in votes will not be counted accurately compared to 65% of Democrats who think they will.

In February last year, the USPS (United States Postal Service) filed an application for a patent that describes a blockchain-based “secure voting system.” On Aug. 13, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published the patent application.

Which begs the question: Just how close is the blockchain promise of eliminating voter fraud?

Ideally an Easy, Transparent and Trusted Way to Vote

In essence, the blockchain is a digitally distributed public ledger. In contrast with centralized network systems, the decentralized ledger processes, verifies and records all transactions on its network of nodes simultaneously.

This is one of the main value propositions of the blockchain, an environment where resources and authority are shared. The transparency offered by a decentralized, shared network means regulators can simultaneously monitor all transactions — votes in this case — and be alerted if something was amiss in the network.

Combined with the ease of digital voting, voting on the blockchain could also encourage more voter participation. Around 138 million Americans voted in the 2016 election, which accounts for 61.4% of the voting-eligible population, meaning more than one-third of the voting-eligible population (38.6%) have not made their voices heard. 

The built-in immutability of blockchains ensures that, in theory, tampering with the network is virtually impossible. Once data is entered on a blockchain, it cannot be altered or deleted because of two things — a cryptographic fingerprint unique to each block and the consensus mechanism of the network, which refers to the process by which network nodes agree on a shared history, as mentioned above.

Being that each block includes the previous block’s unique crypto hash, changing an entry in the ledger retroactively requires that a new hash is calculated not only for the block it is in but for every subsequent block. The new entry also has to be entered before any of the other nodes add new blocks to the chain, or conflicts will arise with existing ones which will result in the other nodes automatically rejecting the new alteration.

Ideally, voting on the blockchain could ensure that the overall data auditing process brings trust and integrity to the data.

What history tells us

Blockchain-enabled elections that have already taken place in the last couple of years were mostly small and controlled, indeed nothing on the scale of the U.S. elections. Notable implementations include the following.

In March 2018, Sierra Leone implemented presidential elections and votes in the West Districts on a blockchain ledger by Swiss-based firm Agora. However, it was not a full implementation of blockchain voting as the Agora blockchain was used to secure rather than cast votes. Paper ballots were cast, and the protocol was deployed to record votes to ensure safe storage and third-party verifiability of election data.

U.S. federal elections have been using a blockchain app by US-based Voatz to enable members of the military who were stationed overseas to vote electronically. It was used in the 2018 midterm elections in West Virginia as well as ballots in Colorado, Oregon, and Utah.

Based on the Hyperledger blockchain framework, Voatz deploys a permissioned blockchain system that requires all users to first be verified. This is a three-step process that includes scanning a voter’s ID, taking a live facial snapshot, and using the fingerprint reader on the smartphone to connect the voter’s device to the voter. 

Next, a mobile ballot containing tokens (potential votes) is generated. Each token is cryptographically tied to a candidate or referendum question. The voter’s votes are then verified by multiple distributed servers (or nodes). This process repeats as additional voters cast their ballots.

MIT researchers have, however, criticized the Voatz app for its cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Their study concludes that hackers can potentially alter, stop, or expose votes on the Voatz network.

Trail of Bits, the third-party firm that conducted a comprehensive white box audit on Voatz, seems to agree.

To date, the largest use of blockchain technology in voting is the Sept. 8, 2019 city council election in Moscow, Russia. Three of the city’s twenty electoral precincts allowed the casting of ballots from an Ethereum-based blockchain mobile app in a bid to make voting easier and more accessible. While succeeding in increasing voter turnout (a reported 90%), the voting system itself crashed twice on election day. A month before the election, computer researchers also demonstrated how easily corruptible the code was — a mere 20 minutes to break.

Just last month, Russian news outlets Meduza and Kommersant reported that the passport data from Russian citizens who voted in the country’s recent constitutional reform referendum (that utilized blockchain technology for voting) have been leaked. They were available for sale on the dark web.

Not possible today

MIT researcher, James Koppel, summed up the consensus of security experts, that “running a secure election over the internet is not possible today.”

Adding that the “reasoning is that weaknesses anywhere in a large chain can give an adversary undue influence over an election,” Koppel concludes that “today’s software is shaky enough that the existence of unknown exploitable flaws is too great a risk to take.”

While the benefits of blockchain-based voting are indisputable, it is proving difficult to put faith in the technology just yet, based on the results so far due to significant gaps in security. Scalability is also another factor that needs to be seriously considered even amid claims by blockchain projects like Chaintegrity.

The blockchain dream is that the technology, still in its infancy, will mature alongside the young voters it will one day help, and be a crucial part of our collective future. We might need to wait a bit longer for that to happen.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Darylann Elmi