Amid the clamor around bitcoin’s ascendant (now descendant) value, the potential of a far greater contributor to society has been clouded. Bitcoin—which has in recent months been both the godsend and the bane of speculative investors around the world—is made possible by its underlying blockchain technology. Lauded as a technological innovation on the same magnitude as the internet, blockchains at their simplest are diffuse electronic ledgers that garner efficiency, transparency, and remarkable security through a decentralized structure. You don’t have to understand everything about the underlying technology to see how such a system could have a significant impact on our lives.
Blockchains are now being adopted globally for things as diverse as smart contracts, property rights, health care, and humanitarian assistance. But, blockchains also have enormous potential to revolutionize the way elections are conducted. If implemented correctly, such systems could mobilize new electorates, increase voter participation, reduce election violence, and make elections more secure and reliable than ever before.
In the shadow of 2017, there are many reminders that elections can be conducted more efficiently, more safely, and more transparently, both globally and domestically. Tight and disputed elections the world over resulted in weeks of political tension, costly legal proceedings, dangerous riots, and deadly election violence. Presidential races in Honduras and Kenya featured heated contests where incumbents and challengers battled in courtrooms while their supporters clashed in the streets, leaving 14 dead in Honduras and at least 92 in Kenya. From claims of voter fraud to voter suppression and recounts, the need for improvement to electoral systems is perhaps less dire in the developed world, but no less apparent.
This is where blockchains have a role to play. The crux of the hype around blockchains comes from their ability to secure information efficiently and transparently. In the case of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, a blockchain records, verifies, and safeguards financial transactions. Now, imagine if each transaction was not the exchange of currency, but the casting of a vote. Verified voters would be able to record their votes electronically into a blockchain-based ledger, where their selections would be safeguarded and transparent, all with due diligence to protect individuals’ identities. Curious parties could, with minimal technical expertise, readily observe and verify the results, a critical need for which conventional systems seldom have easy and transparent solutions. What is more, the protections therein promise finally to make widespread, secure electronic voting feasible. Much of this success relies on blockchain’s robust security and mindful maintenance of the rules that govern it.
A blockchain’s verification process utilizes a diffuse underlying computing network that has agreed to a specific set of guidelines about how transactions within a blockchain are processed. This verifying network contains a multitude of independent verifying actors such that no single entity can hope to manipulate the blockchain on its own. In effect, valid information recorded into a well-maintained blockchain is remarkably secure.
Blockchains gain their name from the succession of larger and larger blocks of data that form their structure. Each new block contains a complete history of every preceding block, all the way back to a genesis block, the first in the chain. Each block must be consistent with all of the preceding blocks in the chain in order for any transaction to proceed. Once verified, the chain adds a new block and the process can begin anew.
In the case of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, this verification process prohibits an individual from tricking the system to say his account with 10 bitcoins actually contains 100 bitcoins, both in new transactions or anywhere else in the history of the blockchain. When dealing with votes, this would prohibit a candidate or party from manipulating results in their favor by misrepresenting tallies or engaging in various other types of electoral fraud. Furthermore, the results would be publicly accessible in the blockchain such that essentially anyone could confirm the results and clearly identify inconsistencies.
The protection of voter identity is another crucial element to this system. Were someone to be able to connect specific votes in a blockchain with the corresponding individuals, the whole system would run the risk of being a tool for oppression, particularly in environments where an incumbent or establishment power wants to neutralize or punish an opposition. To protect identities, each voter would have a unique, private ID. In the blockchain, anyone can see how each verified ID has voted, but the actual identity tied to a specific ID would require personal and stringent methods of verification to access—not unlike those associated with social security numbers. In this way, the integrity of the election could be readily confirmable, while individual voters can remain anonymous and protected. That said, concerted effort would be needed to protect such a database of personal identification, as illustrated by the breach of India’s Aadhaar database. Ramifications for not doing so are real and deserving of careful consideration.
To be sure, the technical hurdles involved in making the system useful and safe to use are challenging, but mindful investment and responsible stewardship of these innovations could lead to major advances in how we conduct free and fair elections. Indeed, numerous barriers to voter turnout and voter discrimination could be reduced in the developed and developing worlds.
Potential voters in the developing world—newly connected through a burgeoning number of mobile devices—could more easily participate in politics using remote electronic voting platforms secured with blockchains. The simplicity of a properly implemented regime of electronic voting should not only increase the turnout and efficiency of established voters, but unlock an untapped part of the electorate that had previously found the barriers to political participation entirely prohibitive. Long trips to voting points at the expense of day-to-day productivity can be eliminated. Even the thuggish methods of physical voter suppression that take place at voting centers could be bypassed. Blockchains allow for a level of security and transparency that has otherwise been unobtainable and has thus far left widespread remote electronic voting as little more than an aspiration.
Similar gains in terms of voter participation are imaginable in the developed world. Developed countries often have the institutional strength and infrastructural capacity to make implementation more immediately feasible. But the freedom of voting electronically may even help societies avoid coming to legal loggerheads over what constitutes unfair voting practices. Indeed, there are opportunities for both those with concerns about the validity of votes and voters and for those concerned with voter suppression. At the outset, the ability to register to vote electronically could be implemented in a way to allow for the identification of fraudulent voters and the cleaning up of antiquated voting lists. Electronic voting would also eliminate the obstacles of long wait times and insufficient voting locations that have been used in the past to indirectly disenfranchise parts of the electorate.
Not only would a blockchain-based voting system eliminate the costs associated with conventional systems in the run-up to election day, but it would likely reduce the costs that commonly arise afterward. Currently, elections that are too close to call or that generate disputed results can create immense legal, political, social, and human costs. These can be as simple as the exposure of altogether comical procedures of settlement or legal costs incurred when contests are taken to court, but also as severe as political stagnation, riots, and ethnic violence. The extra costs of a recount may be conscionable, but the lasting social cleavages spurred from days of indecision in tense electoral circumstances are not. Blockchains will by no means stop combative actors from sparring, but they can help allay circumstances that are known to instigate such trouble.
These systems will also fall short of their full potential if elements fail to meet agreed upon standards for operation. Commonly cited instances of failed cryptocurrency blockchains reveal networks undermined by needless mistakes in procedural architecture. Systems would need to be designed to handle millions of votes in quick succession. Bitcoin stands out as a poor performer in this category, handling a mere 300,000 transactions per day globally and requiring an immense amount of energy in doing so. This is largely a result of limitations to the way its blockchain was designed to operate. Ethereum, a cryptocurrency second to bitcoin in terms of market capitalization and a pioneer for smart contracts, operates on a blockchain with different rules and markedly better capacity for processing transactions. Though not yet sufficient for election-type numbers, Ethereum projects it will have the same transaction capacity as Visa in a matter of years. More importantly, it illustrates that blockchains can be operated in a way that will allow for the dramatically increased capacity required by electoral processes.
It is also essential to adequately address the human obstacles to implementation. In the developing and developed world, there is a trust deficit in electoral systems that cannot be ignored. Without widespread education efforts, voters would be loath to enroll in or trust such a voting system. An effort to explain the process would crucially need to illustrate both the protection of data and the impartiality of a distributed ledger, all in plain language easily understood at all levels of education and technological savvy. Admittedly, this is no small task. Implementation in small, developed countries may need to pave the way, but potential headwinds resulting from trust deficits should not stop the forging of a path forward.
More challenging obstacles involve human prejudice and disingenuous governments. Should the same prejudices that manifest themselves at polling stations be passed to another element of the electoral process, like the assigning of personal IDs, the system’s contribution to the public good would be undermined. Given the well-known difficulties with voter registration in the United States and abroad, this should remain a critical concern. Independent election observers would also remain as necessary as ever. In the same way that the occurrence of elections cannot singularly guarantee a free and fair democracy, the mere existence of a blockchain-based electoral system would not guarantee a free and fair election.
Skeptics will continue to highlight potential shortcomings and misconceptions about blockchains. They are right to be wary. The technology is still fresh and unknown, and the potential negative ramifications of poorly implemented systems are high. Yet, electoral systems otherwise in place are known to have serious deficiencies for which technology is providing us solutions. It would be wrong to decry the technology due to surmountable technological challenges when it has so much to offer.