Late last year, West Virginia introduced a blockchain based voting app for citizens to partake in federal elections from the comfort of their cellphones. By doing so, the state became the first to use the technology for a elections process in the US. Instead of identifying at a polling station, citizens will need only to upload a photo of an official government issued ID to the platform along with a short video snippet of their face, as the app makes use of facial recognition software to verify the user’s identity. Only after the identity is confirmed, the citizen will be able to use the app to submit their vote which is recorded onto the blockchain.
Not everyone is thrilled
Joseph Lorenzo Hall is Chief Technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology. Hall has gone on record saying that in his opinion “mobile voting is a horrific idea”, citing concerns with cellphone reliability and, more specifically, to the potential hacks that could come with it. He added that “servers […] are very difficult to secure without a physical paper record of the vote.” Hall’s skepticism was immediately met with claims by proponents that he doesn’t fully understand the role blockchain plays in mobile voting and the immutable nature of decentralized ledger technology. In addition, voters can also check that their respective votes on the blockchain are as they actually voted, however this retort arguably deepens what is being called a digital divide, a legitimate concern when it comes to matters of high importance like the democratic voting process.
Another popular criticism is that, while the blockchain itself may be virtually impenetrable, there’s still no way (yet) to guarantee that the particular apps used to write on the blockchain are not compromised; which for-profit company would you trust with such a vital task? Would you trust your sitting government?
Snowballing to freedom
West Virginia is not the first place to consider blockchain for the voting process: The West African country Sierra Leone was thought to have deployed the tech during state elections in March, however these claims were strongly denied by the local government several days later. The Swiss city of Zug (viewed by many in the industry as the Mecca of blockchain non-regulation) on the other hand did hold a successful trial for a municipal blockchain vote in June 2018.
As expected, districts around the world are quickly following suit: Denver Colorado announced it will be deploying the technology for its overseas voters and citizens currently on military service. A pilot, similar to the process in West Virginia, was run using a blockchain-based smartphone app in collaboration with startups Tusk Philanthropies and Voatz.
On the other side of the world, Russia’s ruling party United Russia has launched its very own blockchain based e-voting platform in a move to developed to improve election transparency and remove intermediates in the voting process. Similarly, the city council of Moscow submitted a bill to make use of the technology for the country’s polls nation-wide a month ago, after another successful blockchain voting pilot was completed last December at a regional level in Saratov Oblast, Southern Russia. 40,000 locals reportedly participated in the pilot in a vote to elect members of the local youth parliament using a decentralized, electronic polling system developed by Polys (by Kaspersky Labs) in 2017.
There is very little doubt among blockchain technologists that DLT will play a major role in democratic elections soon. It is important to reflect however on what it will take to get us there. There are three hurdles which in my opinion must be solved before we see mass adoption of blockchain based voting:
- Not there just quite yet — With so many moving parts and different entities becoming involved in the digitization of democracy, confidence in blockchain is not enough to relieve mistrust in other technologies involved, not mistrust in governing bodies (whether they be for-profit tech companies, or government agencies). These things will need to be sorted and tested with very high confidence over a scope of pilots before they are implemented.
- High stakes — Its been said that tech moves faster than culture. There are elements of the relationship between tech and state, as well as between tech and corporate, that we need to settle before such a grand move. No matter how you want to put it, elections is more important, and effects far too many people, to be compared to the introduction of the iPhone for example. Precedent set with elections can have major ramifications for the lives of many people once, and must be handled seriously.
- Education towards Confidence — There is something very reassuring about knowing your vote is being counted on a literal strip of paper you manually placed in a box. Think about how hard it was to teach your parents how to do something digital which they have for their entire lives been performing manually… its not easy, and will be undoubtedly harder when it comes to elections. Like the economy, electoral processes rely a whole lot on confidence of the systems participants in the system itself, and this confidence needs to be established very firmly before it is adopted on a national scale.