The 2020 U.S. presidential election was met with an increase in mail order votes due to concerns about COVID-19. Still, while many Americans stayed away from polling stations this year, postal delays, rejected votes, and other challenges emerged.
Unsurprisingly, better ways to vote in major elections have quickly become a hot topic of discussion. This has also led some in the crypto community to vigorously support a blockchain-based voting system for use in future presidential elections.
While the promises of the blockchain include trust, transparency and immutability, a group of researchers from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pointed out the security flaws associated with blockchain voting systems. The researchers released a report on November 6 explaining that online voting is fatally flawed as such systems are vulnerable to large-scale cyber attacks. The report specifically discusses blockchain-based voting systems such as Voatz, which was used in US municipal elections but reportedly suffers from data security concerns.
Security aside, blockchain voting systems may be doable
Despite security concerns, some still believe blockchain-based voting systems will be exploited in the important elections that go ahead. Maxim Rukinov, head of the Distributed Ledger Technologies Center of St. Petersburg State University, told Cointelegraph that blockchain allows for a system of fair elections to take place within an environment of trust between participants who generally do not trust the one of the other: “With blockchain you can make voting available and increase the transparency of any election. In a perfect scenario, the results of such a vote cannot be falsified.”
Rukinov shared that he worked with a team of researchers to develop an online voting system designed specifically for corporate use. Known as “CryptoVeche”, Rukinov explained that this particular system stores voting results in a blockchain, which is a type of distributed ledger. As such, the system is highly protected against external and internal hacks.
Alex Tapscott, co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institute and author of a book, explained this in detail for a New York Times article published in 2018, even before the COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges to light. Tapscott pointed out that in the elections, trust is concentrated within government agencies, which are extremely vulnerable to cyber attacks, fraud and human error. To put this into perspective, a study published last year shows local and federal government entities have been victims of 443 data breaches since 2014, but those mostly included lost hardware, shipping errors, and card breaches.
Tapscott noted that a blockchain system relies on distributed network computers to verify transactions. Once verified, the results are recorded in blocks cryptographically linked to the previous block. A secure registry is then formed, which is transparent to all network participants, but remains immutable and tamper-proof. This feature is also important to ensure that people cast only one vote, as blockchain-based systems are meant to prevent double spending.
Don Tapscott, well-known author and co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institute, further told Cointelegraph that votes cannot be submitted online today because internet-based systems don’t work well for such applications:
“If we broadcast information like a vote on the Internet, we are actually sending a copy of that file; the original remains in our possession. This is acceptable for sharing information but unacceptable for transactions with assets, such as money, titles, songs, or recording votes in elections.
As such, Tapscott noted that within a blockchain-based system, public trust in the voting process is achieved through cryptography, coding, and collaboration between citizens, government agencies and other stakeholders.
The technical challenges must be overcome
Of course, it cannot be denied that the technical challenges related to blockchain-based voting systems remain. In addition to the security concerns mentioned by MIT researchers in their recent report, Rukinov acknowledged that developing an online voting system is challenging.
Rukinov further explained that with blockchain systems the accuracy of transactions, in this case, voter registration is verified by a consensus mechanism between the different members of the network. However, when it comes to voting systems, independent observers must also be one of the parties involved in the consensus, which means they should hold several validation nodes.
According to Rukinov, in most cases the number of nodes owned by the network organizer is greater than the number of independent nodes. So, in the case of a blockchain-based voting system, an attack can occur when whoever controls more than half of the resources has the ability to change the data at random. Rukinov pointed out that this problem is not the case with all kinds of consensus mechanisms.
Lior Lamash, founder and CEO of GK8, a cybersecurity firm, also told Cointelegraph that while the immutable nature of the blockchain makes it an effective platform for ensuring the integrity of the voting process, several vulnerabilities remain. In particular, Lamash noted that voter identification is problematic when using blockchain-based voting systems:
“The security aspect of blockchain-based voting is complicated. On the one hand, the blockchain itself is fully protected even from hackers at the state level, as it employs hundreds of thousands of nodes on multiple servers around the world. The challenge would be to secure the “endpoints” of this network: individual ballot papers and polling stations “.
Furthermore, Lamash noted that while every ballot paper stores a user’s private keys, a hacker could obtain that information and manipulate the entire election process: “This problem is quite similar to the challenge that banks and other financial institutions face when offer blockchain-based services. “
While the challenges remain with blockchain-based voting systems, it is clear that blockchain has enormous potential for use in future elections. Dylan Dewdney, chief executive of Kylin, a cross-chain platform designed for the Polkadot-based data economy, told Cointelegraph that even the reliable outcome of an election must be taken into account. It also determined that the applied blockchain for data validation is very useful in this case.
According to Dewdney, a decentralized infrastructure could help improve the reliable outcome of an election process. Dewdney explained that Kylin created a data validation process using an Oracle node, which acts as an information feed. An arbitration node is then used to judge whether such data is valid or not. Dewdney said:
“Anyone running an arbitration node would have an excellent incentive to contest inaccurate information as they would be rewarded in a native token for doing so. Likewise, providing accurate, validated (challenging) information as a premium data feeder to consumers such as news organizations, is incredibly valuable as a premium data feed in a data market. “
Although Kylin is a solution that can be easily applied in the decentralized finance space, the same concept can be used for voting systems. “Decentralized validation of local election results could provide a very powerful tool against some of the problems we are currently experiencing.” He further added: “This could easily function as the linked consensus of validated API feeds of literally thousands of local election results reported to websites within a premium data supply from Dapp developers.”
Rukinov believes that the ideal blockchain-based voting system must satisfy the eligibility, verifiability and immutability of voters. He said these capabilities can be achieved in the future through cryptographic protocols including digital signatures, zero-knowledge proofs and homomorphic cryptography: “To gain additional benefits, the ability to deregister must be added; that observers can detect the facts of forgery; and the permanence of the register changes history “.