Blockchain technology promises to revolutionize polling across the world, as governments and local authorities increasingly wake up to its advantages compared with conventional voting infrastructure.
Various countries are especially attracted to the security benefits of blockchain, with hopes of using it to cut down on fraud and boost transparency. Along with this, governments and local authorities, in both developed and developing nations, are being enticed by the prospect of increased voter turnout, accuracy and potential cost savings.
Centralized voting infrastructure, even in developed countries such as the US has been prone to hacking. Meanwhile, the cost of conducting elections through paper votes are significant, having been found to make up 46% of the cost of elections in France for instance.
Underlining, the inaccuracy of counting votes by hand, recounts are still common in elections across the world. Studies have even shown that election auditors can reach different results from the same set of ballots around 40% of the time.
The Swiss city of Zug has become something of a trailblazer in applying blockchain to real-world use cases. Zug’s low tax rate has helped make it a magnate for blockchain startups, with the area having become known as Crypto Valley. Since 2016, the city has allowed residents to pay for municipal services using bitcoin.
This summer, Zug grabbed the headlines when the local authorities staged a blockchain-enabled municipal vote there. Zug declared the trial in July this year a success; it comprised of a consultative vote using two yes/no questions and one multiple choice answer.
While various e-voting systems have been piloted across Swiss cantons using a centralized server, the Zug authorities claimed a decentralized-blockchain voting system was safer and less susceptible to “unnoticed” manipulation.
Zug declared its blockchain voting trial a success
The system used for Zug’s July poll was developed by Luxoft, a software firm headquartered in Zug and one of the founding members of the local Crypto Valley Association.
In partnership with the city of Zug and Switzerland’s Lucerne University of Applied Sciences, Luxoft claimed to have created the first customizable blockchain-based e-voting system to be used in a “major economy”.
Luxoft’s blockchain-based solution, e-Vote, is built using the Hyperledger Fabric and is integrated with Zug’s Ethereum-powered ID registration app eID, which is provided by blockchain firm Uport. Zug residents have been able to register for eID since November last year, enabling the city a means by which to digitally verify citizenship through Ethereum blockchain.
Luxoft, meanwhile, has set up its e-Vote platform as opensource, describing e-voting as a “fundamental mechanism for direct democracy.”
Trials using blockchain for electoral voting also got underway in Ukraine this summer, with officials especially attracted to the enhanced security offered by the technology versus conventional voting methods.
In 2014, Ukraine officials claimed to have narrowly fended off a serious cyberattack on the country’s presidential election, alleging that Russian hackers had attempted to fake vote tallies on central computers.
In August this year, Ukraine’s election commission hailed early tests into the use of NEMs blockchain-voting technology a success. It has estimated that the cost of adopting the technology across the country would work out at $1,227 for each polling station.
While Ukrainian officials see the security benefits as justifying the upfront investment, proponents of blockchain technology also claim it can reduce costs in the long run. The Ukrainian electoral commission said it was especially pleased by the fact that blockchain makes it impossible to tamper with votes once they are cast.
Meanwhile, blockchain voting should also deliver election results far more quickly than conventional paper-based polling. In Ukraine, final election results through its existing polling infrastructure have taken up to up to 15 days to be available.
NEM’s voting platform is a NanoWallet module that enables anyone to create and vote on polls transacted through the NEM blockchain.
As with Luxoft’s platform, NEM’s voting capability uses an opensource code, claiming that this guarantees decentralization. NEM’s voting module can be located by simply downloading the latest version of its NanoWallet. Through its services tab, users can create their own poll or view and vote on a list of public polls.
Ukrainian election officials are attracted to the enhanced security offered by blockchain
Agora and Africa
In the March 2018 Sierra Leone presidential election, blockchain voting technology from Switzerland-based blockchain startup Agora was tested at around 280 polling stations alongside the country’s traditional polling mechanism.
“Our end-to-end verifiable voting technology eradicates fraud and corruption by creating a complete, auditable, undisputable, open and transparent record of the election on a custom blockchain,” says Agora.
Claiming its technology produces “100% accurate and verifiable results,” Agora says its platform is especially well suited to countries such as Sierra Leone where elections are frequently marred by violence.
“Irrefutable results can create more peaceful societies where elections do not contribute to a climate of tension and violence,” says Agora.
Elections in Sierra Leone have previously been marred by violence
Among the other benefits of the technology cited by Agora are:
Cryptographic security and a distributed, decentralized network architecture mean ballots and results cannot be altered by any third party, including Agora itself.
The blockchain ledger is publicly accessible, so all stakeholders can verify the validity of the election results. Voters themselves can even check that their own vote was registered correctly and not subsequently altered.
Voters’ choices remain private through encryption and anonymization.
Enables people to cast their votes via smartphone or other digital devices, removing the need to attend polling stations in person.
Elimination of paper, manual processes and physical polling stations cuts costs while the automation of auditing mechanisms also boosts efficiency.
Agora claims its voting app, built on a custom blockchain and protocol, can support the entire electoral process, from the initial voter identification stage right through to the auditing of election results.
In the Sierra Leone blockchain test, however, voters still marked paper ballots; these were then manually re-coded and uploaded onto its blockchain network.
Last month, Kenya was reported to have become the latest African country to consider adopting a blockchain solution for its elections. Kenya’s 2017 elections were also characterised by violence with the opposition party refusing to accept the validity of the result.
Agora is aiming to raise $20m through an initial coin offering, with its crowdsale going live at the beginning of October.
While the chaos that frequently surrounds elections in African countries may spur leaders to adopt the technology there, the US is also on course to become an early adopter.
Controversy over the 2016 presidential election and allegations of Russian interference has cast a spotlight firmly over the integrity of US elections.
Exhibitors at this summer’s Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas claimed to demonstrate that hacking US election results was so easy even an 11-year old child could do it. Broadly, hacking can take two forms, either into official computers that disseminate the results or the voting machines themselves, which count votes.
Then there was the controversy over the time some US citizens were forced to queue to cast their votes in the 2016 presidential election. Some US voters have reportedly had to queue for several hours to access polling stations.
Hacked voting machine: exhibitors at Def Con claimed even a child could compromise US elections
US armed forces personnel voting
In August, the state of West Virginia announced that members of the armed forces serving overseas would be allowed to vote via their smartphone in November’s mid-term elections on an opt-in basis.
At present, many Americans based overseas don’t vote in domestic elections simply because they are unaware they can or they don’t want the rigmarole of having to fill in the right forms to access their vote.
“There is nobody that deserves the right to vote any more than the guys and the women that are out there, putting their lives on the line for us,” says West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner.
The news followed a successful pilot in the 2018 primary election in two West Virginia counties where registered military personnel, their spouses, dependents and citizens stationed overseas cast an official ballot via a smartphone through blockchain technology.
West Virginia’s blockchain voting system is provided by US-based blockchain startup Voatz, which promotes its elections platform as a means to vote from a mobile device, benefiting from the security built into the latest versions of smartphone technology and the “immutability” of blockchain.
In common with the blockchain voting system offered by Luxoft in Zug, the Voatz solution is built using the Hyperledger blockchain technology. As with the Luxoft solution, this therefore means that voters must first be verified before they can vote.
Those using the Voatz platform for the first time must register by taking a photo of their official identification and a video of their face, which they then upload via the Voatz app. Voatz uses facial recognition software to boost security.
Voatz uses facial recognition to verify identity
Voatz also revealed that for the upcoming West Virginia vote, four verified validating nodes are to be used, divided between AWS and Microsoft Azure, each of which are geographically distributed. However, in the future, government or state departments will be able to designate more organisations to act as verifiers, thereby increasing the element of decentralization.
The greater the decentralization of the network, the higher the level of security and protection from would-be hackers.
“We believe that the initial rollout of a blockchain-based election technology benefits greatly from using a permissioned approach, as it more accurately emulates how elections are administered presently in the United States and prevents intentional bad actors from participating as verifiers,” says Voatz.
In early September, it emerged that the Japanese city of Tsukuba had become the first municipality in the country to trial blockchain voting.
Tsukuba has a reputation for being innovative and a leader in science, so it’s not surprising that it has emerged as one of the early pioneers of blockchain voting.
Thus far, Tsukuba has presented the main benefit of blockchain voting for its citizens as offering them the convenience of voting via their smartphones from the comfort of their own homes. In much the same way as the Swiss city of Zug has trialled blockchain voting, Tsukuba tested the system by asking participants to select proposals on social projects.
Tsukuba has remained tight-lipped about the kind of blockchain technology being used in the trial, saying only that voters were able to cast votes from remote devices after their identity cards had been scanned by a card reader.
However, early teething issues in the trial were reported with some people prevented from voting because they could not remember passwords. Others found it difficult to verify that their votes had been cast successfully.
Blockchain voting may just be getting started, but the proliferation in trials this summer and the move by West Virginia to allow voters to cast votes through the technology in a live election shows that the technology could be implemented relatively quickly from here.
The likes of Zug in Switzerland and Tsukuba in Japan are looking at adopting blockchain voting partly because they want to be viewed as trend setters. However, bespoke blockchain voting platforms such as the ones offered by Agora and Voatz are focusing on solving much deeper issues than a city’s image or simply convenience.
Anything that boosts voter turnout in an era characterised by voter apathy should be welcomed, as people get the chance to cast their votes from the comfort of their homes.
Allegations of Russian interference have made elections a hot topic in the US
Blockchain voting, nevertheless, may provide the solution to the significant cybersecurity threats currently being cited by technology experts and officials in countries such as the US and Ukraine. Many African countries, meanwhile, will be attracted by the prospect of solving the old problem of vote tampering.
Just as importantly, if people can verify the way their votes have been cast, then confidence in the election process should be significantly increased. This could even serve to eradicate the violence that has long been a feature of the election landscape in many developing countries.
If blockchain can bring all these benefits to elections along with reduced long-term costs, it should ultimately be too attractive for any government to ignore.
Post written by James Hester
James Hester is a financial journalist, specialising in investment. He has spent much of his career writing about traditional asset classes like equities and bonds. But with a strong interest in technology, today he also enjoys covering cryptocurrencies.