Zhengdong Wang • 2019 Issue
From The Editors:
The idea of “the blockchain” has already existed for several decades. It wasn’t until Satoshi Nakamoto’s whitepaper was published in 2008, however, that a practical implementation of the blockchain was documented. Now, though much of the public discussion of blockchain centers on cryptocurrencies and the financial sector, this cryptographic technology is poised to disrupt numerous industries and core pillars of society. Wang presents a case for one such implementation: the use of blockchain to power the electoral process. By providing a robust security infrastructure and bringing the will of the people to our mobile devices, the blockchain offers one of our best opportunities to expand voter enfranchisement in the modern era.
Voter enfranchisement is an arduous process. When we think of voting rights milestones in the United States, the 15th Amendment, the 19th Amendment, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 immediately come to mind. But Congress was passing major legislation expanding the right to vote even in 1986. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act did not redefine voting rights in the same way as the centerpiece laws that appear in high school civics curriculums did. It did not extend the right to vote to people previously ineligible. Instead, it aimed to improve the exercise of the vote. The act mandates that each state shall accept and process absentee ballots for United States citizens residing outside the country (1). Traditionally, these ballots come through the mail. But in the midterm elections of 2018, the process became even easier for overseas West Virginians. They had the option to cast their vote electronically, on the blockchain.
West Virginia became the first United States state to use blockchain technology in a national election (2). In doing so, they contributed to a long tradition of progress toward equal enfranchisement. Yet even decades after supposed universal suffrage in the United States, the debate over whether elections represent all citizens continues. Structural factors favor some constituencies over others. For example, a Brennan Center for Justice report claimed that Democrats would have had to win the national popular vote by 11 percent on the gerrymandered 2018 midterm map to attain a majority in the House of Representatives (3). These structural obstacles center around issues of access. In one contentious lawsuit, Democratic lawmakers and voters accused one Texas voter ID law of voter suppression (4). Furthermore, instances of abnormally long lines at polling places disproportionately inconvenience minorities (5). Lack of access to voting introduces errors in elections which skews results in favor of those who represent traditionally empowered demographics.
The challenges of equal voting today are different. On paper, no laws disqualify large groups of voters; rather, today’s problems are more insidious. For example, well-meaning language can hide voter suppression schemes, and policies designed to ensure election integrity can inadvertently frustrate voting. We should not accept these externalities as a natural part of the game of politics. We can make the voting process even more compact, even less subject to the friction of Election Day logistics. The next milestone in voting will erase physical barriers to exercising one’s right to vote. Governments have experimented with past proposals of electronic voting systems, but none have taken hold due to various security and practical concerns. Blockchain technology is a new implementation of the familiar concept of electronic voting. It brings unique puzzles, but also potential for greater impact. It can solve the dilemmas that have stymied previous electronic voting plans. Voting could finally be as easy as a few taps on a smartphone.
The phrase “blockchain technology” is surrounded by a futuristic, mysterious air. Those well-versed in the theoretical foundation of hashes, digital signatures, and distributed ledgers must resort to a battery of analogies to educate the layperson. Blockchain’s steep learning curve awakens our natural distrust for things we don’t understand. But the point of blockchain, as our analogies remind us, is that we don’t need trust at all.
The foundation of any blockchain is a ledger. A ledger is simply data: details of financial transactions, legal contracts, votes, or anything else. All of the data that a blockchain holds is split into blocks. Each block knows the next block that continues the data, creating a chain. Whenever someone adds data to the blockchain, they add a new block with the new data to the end of the chain. What makes a blockchain unique from traditional methods of storing data, however, is the distributed ledger. Data is stored not in a central system, but shared across a network of nodes. Each participant in a blockchain network, or node, possesses a complete copy of the ledger. The entire blockchain, with all its data, exists on every computer that is part of the blockchain’s network.
If a copy of the blockchain exists on every node, how does someone add to or change the data? Nodes know what order to chain the blocks in because each block has a unique identifying code, called its hash. Each block is comprised of three elements: the hash of the previous block in the chain, the data stored in this block, and a string of random values. Finding the unique hash that corresponds to the three elements of a block is computationally intensive. This is because not all hashes may be valid. The designers of the blockchain may require that all hashes begin with the digit zero, for example. When designers restrict the range of possible hashes, nodes on the blockchain must constantly guess new strings of random values (the third component of the block that does not represent any important data) until the hash of all three components of the block meet the requirements. In this example, that occurs when the hash begins with the digit zero. Guessing and checking hashes can take a long time, even for state-of-the-art processors. This computational barrier is the key to the blockchain’s security, as will become clear later.
Blockchain technology is a new implementation of the familiar concept of electronic voting. It brings unique puzzles, but also potential for greater impact.
The magazine you are holding in your hand (or reading on a screen) can clarify the actors in a blockchain. Say an enthusiastic writer in a parallel universe wants to write for DISTILLED. In this universe, the editors operate DISTILLED like a blockchain. Let us also say, for ease of the analogy, that in this parallel universe, each DISTILLED article ends with a sentence in gibberish. Each author and editor of this issue of DISTILLED is a node. They each hold their own copy of the magazine. The prospective author broadcasts the manuscript of their new text to everyone (every node on the network). Each person knows the title of the previous article (the hash of the previous block) and the new manuscript – the data of a new block. Each person also has a title-generation machine (the hash calculator), which outputs a unique title for every text someone inputs to it. Most of the titles it generates are dreadful (they do not meet the requirements of the hash). So, each person inputs a random gibberish sentence at the end of the text, slightly changing the block. Eventually, someone stumbles on a good title, and tells everyone else which gibberish sentence he used to find it. Everyone else verifies that the title is good themselves, and if so, adds the new text to their own copy of DISTILLED – a new block.
This writer can rest easy knowing that if a critic were to attempt to change what she wrote, he would have a hard time doing so. Because the writer’s text is now part of the chain, any changes to the text (the data of the block) will change its title (the hash that is made from the data on the block). If the critic changes the title of one piece, he must also change the title of every subsequent piece, for the later pieces use the title of previous piece to generate titles. In the same way, the fact that the hash generated from a block’s previous hash, data, and random string is unique means that changing the data of one block in the chain will change the hash of that block, which requires changing the hash of every subsequent block.
This chaining improves security. This property ensures that in a system where most nodes are not malicious, the majority rules. Nodes which disagree on the veracity of a block simply vote on which version is correct. Each node sends what it believes is the correct version of the ledger. More nodes that agree on a version of a block means that all nodes used more computational power to create that block. The blockchain will cast aside conflicting blocks confirmed by fewer nodes, and defer to the longest copy of the chain – the chain which took the most computational power to create. The longest chain is probably the correct one, because a malicious actor would have to control the majority of computational power in the network to alter data on a whim. Gaining control of a chain would require an awesome amount of processing power. For example, the global power consumption rate of bitcoin block verifiers amounted to about 22 terawatt-hours a year in 2018, and is increasing exponentially (6). A majority of that would equal the electricity consumption of entire states. It is prohibitively difficult and glaringly obvious for a singular actor to control the majority of the computational power on the blockchain. Therefore, using blockchain technology to count human votes in elections is a fantastic application. Anyone can see if a single actor controls the blockchain. Any actor who does not control the blockchain cannot effectively tamper with votes.
Blockchain technology’s inherently secure nature therefore creates a method of voting magnitudes more accessible than current technology. It has massive implications for democracy. Blockchain-based cryptocurrency captured a media frenzy in the last decade, but the principle is by no means untested. Cryptographers proposed the principles of certifying digital documents in 1991 (7). The volatility of the market may deter some people not involved in the world of cryptocurrency. News of people amassing and losing fortunes in the space of a few months can make us skeptical of the technology. But the principles are sound. The value of penny stocks, for example, may fluctuate, causing hesitation about the stock itself; however, traders do not doubt the stock exchange. In the same way, blockchain technology can undergird democracy as it does transparent financial institutions.
Despite the promise of the technology, blockchain voting is currently relegated to the edges of public conversation. Startups implementing blockchain voting such as Voatz (the company responsible for West Virginia’s 2018 absentee ballot) and Democracy Earth are still more likely to find themselves featured as popular technology profiles than serious policy choices (8-9). But governments are increasingly adopting blockchain voting for high stakes elections. The Swiss town of Zug piloted a blockchain-tallied questionnaire on local issues in 2018 (10); later that year, the Japanese city of Tsukuba implemented a blockchain system to vote on social contribution projects; Ukraine operates multiple elections using the Ethereum blockchain, and is developing the capability to eventually run nationwide elections with the technology (11-12). Implementation is feasible – so we should consider what it would look like at scale.
Democracies ought to seriously pursue blockchain technology for national elections. But the political will to do so does not exist. Security concerns create little incentive for risk-averse politicians to sponsor extended experiments. It is unclear how blockchain technology will impact an incumbent’s reelection chances, after all. The debate of whether or not to implement blockchain voting is not just at a standstill – it isn’t happening at all.
We can’t ignore the benefits of digital voting. Democracies have a moral obligation to reflect the interests of their constituencies. In modern democracies, participating in the political process is relatively easy in principle. Register online, and bring identification to the polling place on Election Day. But for many, that access is nominal, because physical voting is inherently regressive. The flat time cost associated with physical voting, albeit small, poses a greater obstacle for individuals with less power over their own burdens. Inflexible work schedules and appointments, family care responsibilities, and disabilities all compete for a voter’s time on Election Day. In a tradeoff between meeting the obligations of one’s living circumstances and the impact of one’s vote, many people choose the former. Moreover, even voters who can spare the time to queue at a polling place often won’t. Economists like to point out that voting isn’t worth the opportunity cost. Therefore, it costs more for people without the option to take off work or find alternative family care to express their views. Even requesting a mail-in ballot instead can subject one to other possible forms of voter suppression, with election-deciding consequences (13). That’s why in a 2016 Consumer Reports survey, 33 percent said that they would be more likely to vote if they had the option to vote online from wherever they chose (14). In practice, overseas voters who received their ballot electronically were almost 50 percent more likely to vote successfully (15). Removing practical barriers to voting is necessary to achieve equal representation. Fair democratic representation should not be a tradeoff between a day’s wages and a voice in the political process. Accepting the status quo hamstrings representation. Our image of voting does not have to include a physical polling place.
Blockchain technology’s inherently secure nature therefore creates a method of voting magnitudes more accessible than current technology. It has massive implications for democracy.
Even if governments nominally endorse blockchain voting, the initiative for building such a voting infrastructure must come from governments themselves. No clear model for implementation exists for large elections. Private companies, at the vanguard of blockchain development, can employ lean programming teams and iterate quickly. They can test various blockchain voting methods on small scales. Governments should not sit back complacently, trailing the private sector. They are uniquely obligated to actively pursue easier voting schemes, as they hold a monopoly on large-scale elections. Only large, developed democracies can greenlight a blockchain pilot on a national stage. Rather than discounting blockchain technology as too untested, liberal democracies, not startups, ought to lead its development.
Governments do not need to jump this hurdle alone. State support for private technologies can reach goals magnitudes greater than either party acting alone. The United States, for example, has enjoyed decades of collaboration between The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the private sector. They have aerospace innovations abound to show for it. NASA astronauts will even launch from private spacecraft for the first time in 2019 (16). For blockchain voting, a substantive test bed is essential to developing a viable system, to preempt security breaches. Private vendors can resolve the daunting collective action problem that cripples government testing. No government wants the unforeseeable risks of implementing an electronic voting system. But if the public sector provides unique resources, the private sector can take on the risks of innovation.
In this way, implementing blockchain voting is not a change we should fear. It augments rather than replaces physical voting. Even if governments offer digital ballots, many may still take the paper option. Digital ballots, then, capture only the constituency that is at high risk of not voting altogether.
Blockchain technology will better represent voters in a second way. Governments can narrowly tailor voting issues in an electronic system. Running a paper election is expensive – electronic elections may be as well – but we can change pixels far easier than we can change ink on a page. Imagine the new Election Day experience. A voter wakes up, and logs into her voting mobile application with some identification (a national voting number given to registered voters), a passcode, or biometric information (a fingerprint or an image). Their ballot expects marks for nationwide and local offices and propositions, much like old paper ballots. But local decisions are much more local. Should the city rename the park three blocks down the street? Should neighborhood garbage collection occur on Wednesday or Thursday? These questions might matter less than the question of who sits in the legislature, but they are economically efficient; those who care more about them are more likely to vote, compared to a system where these preferences are not discussed at all. Voters have a constant dialogue with their democracy through frequent voting.
…implementing blockchain voting is not a change we should fear. It augments rather than replaces physical voting.
Even understanding its benefits, blockchain voting still has risks. Election security concerns dominate the discussion on proposed changes. Blockchain technology, however, answers many longstanding security questions. Altering a vote or voter information would require a malicious actor to control over half of the computational power on the network. We can discount this possibility – with the allied power of governmental agencies, private supercomputing, and plenty of dispersed citizen participants, co-opting the network would be prohibitively difficult, and its traces obvious.
Instead, malicious actors might tamper with other parts of the process. Someone could attempt to alter data on a device before the device sends the data to the blockchain. If this happens, it would bypass the way nodes verify data. Nodes would see only the incorrect data, and think it is correct (17). Secure software design can make this kind of tampering difficult. But local tampering is still possible, making it a valid concern. Why then, should we keep blockchain an option? The blockchain prevents any local bad actor from affecting the vote nationally. To poison the data before the device sends the data to the blockchain, an actor would have to individually poison each device. Other nodes might confirm one bad vote, but that impact is minimal. In the worst case, this kind of vote tampering is no worse than the vote tampering that already happens under the paper system. In North Carolina’s 2018 midterm election, election officials suspected voter fraud when absentee ballot statistics did not corroborate Election Day statistics. Stuffing ballot boxes with bad votes is the paper analog to hacking devices individually to submit bad votes to the blockchain. Blockchain ballots are no more hackable than paper ballots.
Blockchain also mitigates interference by streamlining election auditing. Independent bodies, approved by the government, can monitor and audit the voting process as observers on the blockchain. Because each node broadcasts the blockchain to other nodes on the network, any node can access full election statistics to spot anomalies (18). Auditors can trace fraud to a specific internet service provider or device model. This means that blockchain technology removes another cumbersome requirement of non-blockchain electronic systems – back doors. Professor Matt Blaze of the University of Pennsylvania testified to Congress in 2016 that designing access methods for law enforcement would expose the entire system to outside interference. He argues that there is “overwhelming consensus” in the security community that no encryption method would achieve the security required for critical communications over the internet. In other, less transparent electronic voting systems, these backdoors allow election administrators an easy way to monitor and manage the election. Back doors are huge vulnerabilities by definition. Blockchain voting circumvents this need, because it does not need to transfer information beyond a user’s local district. A blockchain hierarchy ensures that information broadcast to each node relies on multiple separate blockchain sources, not one vulnerable network (18). Therefore, compromising the entire voting infrastructure around the blockchain is in ways even more difficult than controlling the blockchain itself – to hide their tracks, one must mask interference at the level of multiple citizen, public, and private actors. Comparatively, the upper limit of potential voter fraud is no greater, and the time to detection actually quicker, for blockchain voting than in the status quo.
Let us take the blockchain critic at their best case again. Even if a blockchain system could be compromised to a degree greater than a paper system could, there is still a compelling global argument for adopting it, in transitioning democracies. International observers will question election integrity in new democracies which transitioned from autocracies. Many modern autocracies disguised as democracies also mislead its people with farce elections. These voters have little faith in their de facto dictators, corrupt legislatures, and courts to relinquish power. A democracy today, a coup tomorrow – some dangerous rhetoric has even suggested that free and fair elections are not possible because a country is developing (19). These states can turn to blockchain elections. Although mediating third countries or private companies are not ideal, they are a legitimizing presence compared to the shroud of a ballot box managed by a corrupt regime. After all, blockchain developers write open-source software, and anyone can detect majority control of the network. Established democracies must move first to create the international pressure for others to adopt a decentralized blockchain system. Even if established democracies do not see a benefit to blockchain voting themselves, spurring its development will progress human rights globally in ways international aid often fails. And even if these blockchain elections don’t enfranchise more people, they set a precedent for more legitimate processes.
We can’t predict how voting will change in the future, or how the world will change in turn. Not all of it will go as planned. Certainly, no method of voting is completely secure. But the future is not about languishing in the comfort of the democratic system that we fought to build, but honing it. The idea of instantly voting from anywhere used to be utopian. But today it is possible. Blockchain voting is no more fanciful a prospect than striving for a more perfect union.
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Please see the print issue PDF at http://tinyurl.com/distilled2019 for headshot, affiliation, and email address.
Please see the print issue PDF at http://tinyurl.com/distilled2019 for headshots, affiliations, and email addresses.