No, blockchain is not the answer to our voting system problems

Voting with blockchain for Voatz cell phone

Startup Voatz uses blockchain technology to record votes that citizens and military can make abroad with their smartphones.

Secretary of State of Virginia of the West; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland / CNET

In principle, blockchain technology seems like an excellent solution to the problems of today's voting system. It offers a way to resist data tampering, creates a basis for phone voting and can generate an instant audit to check election results.

Blockchain fans think technology is useful for anything from rendering the film's special effects to selling concert tickets. So, of course, blockchain voting technology is also underway.

Startups including Votem, Voatz, Follow My Vote, Boulé, Democracy Earth and Agora are developing and promoting blockchain-based voting systems. They think that blockchain, a system for the safe sharing of a database of records through a computer network, could be a big problem in voting as lawyers expect it to be shipping, money transfers, property documents and work for which was invented, register transactions with cryptocurrency as bitcoins.

Or maybe not.

"Be skeptical and be very skeptical about this topic," said Maurice Turner, senior technology at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a non-profit organization that seeks to alleviate problems at the intersection of society and the Internet.

Voting systems based on blockchain could one day be the norm. But for now, worried about the vulnerabilities of electronic voting and even for the technophiles who recommend the voting systems on paper, every new digital voting option must prove itself.

And this is a bit harder now for blockchain. The enthusiasm for what accompanied the cryptocurrency craze of 2017 has declined, and the skeptical blockchain are willing to speak out against the clamor. Beyond that, blockchain has been overshadowed by the difficulties of distinguishing the legitimate initial currency of startup startups that offers fundraising efforts from frauds. Even without reputation problems, the vote on the blockchain still has a long way to go before gaining confidence.

"No matter how it may seem at first as if it was" perfect "for this, civil voting is not a good application for blockchain, "tweeted Matt Blaze, a professor of computer science and cryptography at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in electronic voting security.

Blockchain voting promise

Not everyone is so pessimistic. "Mobile voting with a secure and tested interface could eliminate electoral fraud and increase turnout," a Brookings Institution think tank report concluded in May. "It is also a useful tool for the electoral commission to maintain transparency in the electoral process, minimize the costs of holding elections, simplify the process of counting votes and ensure that all votes are counted."

Voatz and Votem both point to some potential advantages of blockchain voting technology:

  • Voters can verify that their vote has been assigned as intended and detect tampering.

  • Governments and independent external parties can confirm the voting results stored on the blockchain for better electoral transparency.

  • With decentralized blockchain databases, where voting data is distributed across many servers, it is harder to destroy or alter the results by hacking a single central system.

"Blockchain tools could serve as the basic infrastructure for transmitting, tracking and counting votes – potentially eliminating the need to rebuild by taking electoral fraud and improper gaming from the table," said an insight from the CB Insights analysis firm in August. .

The blockchain vote is real

Blockchain start-ups are working hard to overcome skepticism. Their technology is used in the real world: elections for political parties, unions, universities, even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The most significant case is Voatz, whose blockchain-based voting system is used in West Virginia as an option for foreign voters, including ordinary citizens and military personnel who could use their phones to cast their vote on the system. Two out of the 55 counties of the state have tested during the 2018 primary election, and only 13 people actually used it to vote, said Chief Executive Nimit Sawhney. In the mid-term elections, 24 counties offered him as an option.

"We have to go through small steps to make sure the technology is bullet-proof as it can," Sawhney said. "Our goal is to expand this in the other states," many of which have the same voter turnout problems resulting from the hassles and missed deadlines that result from obtaining ballot papers, he said. Voatz plans to expand into other countries and other groups that have problems with today's voting technology, such as people with disabilities.

West Virginia has carefully scrutinized the security of Voatz technology, including its phone and back-end server software, and believes it can help people vote even if they are in a submarine or a remote military post in Afghanistan. "We are doing all we can to give our services in uniform foreign members and citizens the same ease of access to a ballot we get in the United States," said Donald "Deak" Kersey, West Virginia election official.

Even a rival, Votem, proceeds with caution. He is working to get the Election Assistance Commission certification in the United States. "I think we will experiment with it in more scenarios by 2020," said operations director Jeffrey Stern.

Stern and Sawhney both emphasize that blockchain technology is only used to store voting data and that other technology, such as verifying the identity of a voter using facial recognition and a government ID, is essential. . And at least for now, their technology is just an option, not the only way people can vote.

And even if blockchain is not perfect, it is not even the current voting technology that challenges. For example, the only proof of identification that Montana and Ohio require for absenteeism voting is that voters write the last four digits of their social security number on the ballot, Stern said. Election audits are slow, expensive and often limited only to close the tenders. It is good luck to individual voters who find out if their votes have been assessed correctly.

But there are negative aspects

Skeptics are still abundant, even among digitization experts.

Princeton's cryptography professor, Matthew Green, has a list of concerns about blockchain voting technologythe first is that it is based on computers in the first place. The blockchain vote also brings new twists to the old problem of voter compulsion: "If I can verify that my vote has been correctly registered, then the head of the local mob can also use my receipt to verify the same thing", and so it can exert pressure to vote for a particular way.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine – a prestigious group of leading researchers in the United States – also said no to the blockchain by voting in a September report on voting technology.

"While the notion of using a blockchain as an immutable urn may seem promising, blockchain technology does little to solve fundamental election security issues, and indeed blockchains introduce additional security vulnerabilities," says the report. . "In particular, if malware on a voter's device alters a vote before it reaches a blockchain, the immutability of the blockchain fails to provide the desired integrity and the voter can never know of the 39; alteration. "

With Voatz technology, only voters know who voted, Sawhney said. And Votem & # 39; s Stern believes there are deep problems with today's non-digital voting systems that need to be weighed. "We can not disregard how people deprived of liberty derive from that process – how many people in paper prevent them from participating," he said.

This is a right point. Blockchain may or may not play a role, but the vote will shift to our devices connected to the Internet, said Turner of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"Now we have voters who are always of age accustomed to having most interactions with products or services done digitally, there will be that pressure coming from the voters themselves," said Turner. "We only have 10 or 20 years to go where voters expect to be able to vote digitally."

Electoral security: all that is necessary to know about electoral security in the mid-term elections in the United States in 2018.

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