October 16, 2018

Moving Elections to the Blockchain May Cause More Problems Than It Solves

Holland & Knight Blockchain Blog
Jacob W. S. Schneider

Blockchain technology, which maintains secure, decentralized records of transactions, could theoretically yield benefits if applied to voting. In such an environment, numerous polling places would act as decentralized nodes that contribute to and reach consensus on citizens' selections as votes are cast. This decentralization of control would ensure that no single entity is entrusted to tabulate votes. Due to the blockchain's reliance on earlier blocks to build the next block, the technology could make it nearly impossible to switch already-cast votes from one candidate to another. The resulting blockchain would also allow near instantaneous tabulation of election results and present a record, subject to public scrutiny, that instills confidence in the results. The transparency of the blockchain could also allow voters to query it after voting and confirm that their votes were accurately recorded. As discussed below, however, blockchain technology is not a panacea to ensuring that elections are accurate and secure.

Early Efforts Toward Blockchain Voting

Voatz, a Boston-based startup, is developing a smartphone app that utilizes blockchain technology. While each transaction in a cryptocurrency blockchain represents an exchange of some value, each transaction in the Voatz blockchain represents a citizen's vote. Voting occurs in the app itself, which allows the voter to cast her vote from anywhere in the world. The app first authenticates each voter through physical ID scans, video "selfies" and fingerprints, then credits the voter's ledger with tokens that can be used to cast votes. After the voter submits her selections on the app, the blockchain nodes verify that each vote is valid and add it to the growing blockchain.  

Voatz has already conducted several live tests for student government elections, town meetings and even state party conventions. West Virginia used Voatz in its primary election this past May to allow overseas military service members from two counties to vote via the smartphone app. Although fewer than twenty votes were cast during the test, the results impressed state officials: for the upcoming November election, overseas military service members of twenty four counties will be able to vote via the Voatz app.

Other groups have been experimenting with blockchain voting as well. Follow My Vote and Votem are other startups developing similar platforms. Established electronic voting company Smartmatic is exploring the use of blockchain as well. Zug (Switzerland) and Tsukuba (Japan) have also conducted live tests using blockchain voting in June and September 2018, respectively.

Issues Remain with Blockchain Voting

Blockchain voting has received a great deal of criticism from the cryptography community. According to Ron Rivest, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and the "R" of the famous RSA cryptosystem), blockchain technology is a "very poor choice for voting." 

"Blockchains have limited security properties that may or may not fit what you're doing," says Mr. Rivest, and those security properties fail to address the fundamental vulnerabilities of online voting.1 Although votes can become secure once they are recorded in the blockchain, the issue of securing the vote data before it is added to the blockchain remains unsolved.2 According to Joseph Lorenzo Hall, Chief Technologist of the Center for Democracy and Technology, "[i]t's internet voting on people's horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paper record of the vote." Stanford computer science professor David Dill agrees: "multiple studies by the top experts in the field have concluded that internet voting cannot be made secure with current technology."

The public nature of blockchain records raises voter secrecy concerns as well. In the future, when current cryptography techniques become outdated, encrypted information about the voters, including for whom they voted, may be revealed in the public blockchain. Further, it may be difficult to decentralize many aspects of elections, such as voter authentication, thus limiting one of the core benefits of blockchain technology

There is also the question of whether blockchain voting uses enough nodes to reach a secure scale. In blockchain systems, security grows with the greater number of decentralized nodes because successful attacks would require a majority of the nodes to collude. Some early tests of blockchain voting have used only a handful of nodes, and not nearly enough to avoid the collusion problem. Moreover, those tests have placed the control over all nodes under a single entity, which undermines the security resulting from decentralized management.

Experts would prefer a system of advanced cryptographic techniques, unrelated to blockchain, known as End-to-End Verifiable Internet Voting (E2E-VIV). They remain cautious, however, and warn that while E2E-VIV offers substantial security benefits relative to previous methods, it is still insufficient to solve the fundamental security problems of online voting. Many experts, including Professor Rivest, would prefer to move away from online voting altogether, and recommend the old-fashioned approach of paper ballots, which are not susceptible to digital changes to their information and can be counted in the event of a dispute over results.




1 Id.

2 The June 2016 attack on the DAO provides an example of how vulnerable software interfacing with a blockchain can expose a system to fraud.

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