Transparency in Voting and Elections with Blockchain
The world is watching the United States of America, as the US elections in November 2020 are coming closer. Depending on how one counts, there are 195 countries in the world. Not all of them have democracies with fair elections. A lot of them though, do pursue fair and legitimate election results. How do we transition from ancient voting to digital and fully transparent legitimate voting systems with indisputable election results? Blockchain and decentralized identity might be a part of the solution. Back in 2018 due to demand outside of the U.S., Dragonchain Founder & Architect Joe Roets already worked on the voting framework for blockchain, along with the needed identity framework we know today as Factor.
Key take-aways Dragonchain solves today:
- Secret ballots - Anonymity is a necessity to avoid voter intimidation
- Proof, Eligibility, and Accountability - It is possible for the individual voter to check, not only that their own vote was counted, but also that it was counted correctly
- Auditability - The capability for anyone with access to the system to execute an automated audit of vote tally as well as the eligibility of each vote.
Acceptance Instead of Innovation?
The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, is pushing acceptance of failure instead of innovation. Joe Roets, Founder, and Architect of Dragonchain, briefly discussed a recent interview on HBO between Axios' Mike Allen and Mark Zuckerburg, who’s preparing the American people for delayed US election results.
Facebook CEO Zuckerberg: "What we and the other media need to start doing is preparing the American people that there is nothing illegitimate about this election taking additional days or weeks to make sure all the votes are counted. In fact, that might be important to make sure this is a legitimate and fair election"
Interestingly enough Zuckerberg talks about the so-called ‘consensus results’, though not in the way we would hope he means with consensus results, which is blockchain based consensus on election results. Unfortunately, he speaks in regards to the consensus of media and Big Tech, while everyone just needs democracy to occur. Zuckerberg also anticipates civil unrest and violence between the time of elections and the final results being official, after potentially days or even weeks. "We need to be doing everything we can to reduce the chances of violence or civil unrest in the wake of this election".
We have gone through years where the United Nations used to send out supervisors to countries overseas, ensuring the democratic process is followed and protected. In 2020, the UN is no longer providing monitoring services, instead, they have electoral assistance. Transparency and proof by Dragonchain, should hopefully prevent the need for UN electoral assistance in the United States and elsewhere around the world.
These two quotes by Mark altogether are in conflict with each other. In order to prevent any civil unrest from happening in the first place, a country with a decent democracy needs to make sure election results are counted and legitimate the same day or the following night. It doesn’t need to take days or weeks to have legitimate and fair election results. The longer a count takes, the more likely there is fraud. No matter which country you are in, or which side of the political spectrum you represent. Whether you are concerned about Republican voter fraud, Democrat voter fraud, malfunctioning voting machines, two-party-systems, or multi-party systems manipulations.
It’s backward thinking to instruct the media to prepare citizens for voting counting delays. The media should be pushing and writing about innovative ways to have voting results in real-time or at least the same day. Unlike what anyone wants to make you believe, this is possible without question and without voting fraud or manipulation. Governments should adopt emerging technology based solutions to take away any transparency concerns the people have.
Current problems with elections and voting
In today’s world, most people still have to go outside to make their vote. Not every issue is related to the protection of personal information (e.g. who votes for which candidate), protection of the security for voting machines, or even voter fraud for that matter. In fact, there hardly is any voter fraud in many countries, though a lot of it in some other countries. Nor are there signs of real successful hacks into voting systems in some countries, whereas other countries do have to deal with this. The diversity around the globe on how elections and votes are handled is very large. And issues vary depending on whether countries use electronic votes, paper votes, or a combination of things.
Some silly issues that arise every election are ranging from fiascos in primary election voting to not having enough voting machines, not having enough ballots or paper votes, scanning issues, recounts, outdated machines malfunctioning and needing replacement during the day of election, and a bunch of other non-critical things. Theoretically, all of that can be prepared for. Even the late opening of voting locations, forcing them to stay open to voters hours longer than other locations, causing delays in counting the final results.
Critical potential problems come in the picture with more electronic voting, especially when it comes to voting for your next President. The rate of voting fraud overall in the US is between 0.00004% and 0.0009%. And that might make just the difference in a swing state. According to a White House report, George W. Bush became president by 537 votes in Florida for an election where 5,825,043 votes were cast. Those 537 votes represented .0000921 of the Florida vote. Major (rightfully) concerns with electronic votes through applications or emerging technologies evolve around hacking attempts, privacy, security, and database breaches or leaks.
A non-exhaustive list of complex issues and concerns to consider for any election and any voting include:
- Voter fraud, cheating or gaming the system
- (Lack of) Detection of illegitimate and double votes
- Voter manipulation
- Privacy and security concerns
- Large centralized databases with millions or billions of personal records
- Delayed election results
- Mail-in votes can be altered, stolen, never arrive, or left out
- No real-time voting data and no transparency
- Hackers getting into voting systems
- Not enough voting machines
- Voting locations opening too late, and opening extended
- Running out of voting ballots, ballot shortage, scanning issues
- Power outages
- Calibration issues / outdated and too old machines that need replacement, causing some delay
Can blockchain be used in voting?
Blockchain should be used in elections and other events wherein voting plays a vital role. Many doubts and fears evolve around disinformation and tampering with results. With blockchain based proof there is indisputable evidence immediately whether or not results were tampered with, or if some hacker gained access to a voting machine. Even today in the United States, some states refuse to provide transparency to the White House in regards to election results or any difficulties they may have faced during elections itself, such as double voting.
Beyond the United States, there are plenty of alarming examples. If we look at what happened in Israel, over 6 million people their records leaked, due to lack of security measures in an application. The leak included highly sensitive and personal information, such as full names, addresses, and identification numbers. The incident was dealt with quickly, but shouldn’t be possible at all in the first place. If there is no central database with all these records, it’s impossible to leak or upload the database somewhere public and unsecured by accident. This is where decentralized identity comes into play, where people remain sovereign over their own personally identifiable information. We’ll dive deeper into the benefits of blockchain based identity voting systems for elections shortly.
Most researchers tend to only look at the immutability aspect of blockchain when it comes to voting, yet the potential capabilities available go way beyond that for years already. It’s evident that blockchain is not the all-in-one solution, it should be seen as a critical part of the solution. Some trials occurred here and there, of which West Virginia is a prime example. They did run some successful experiments, but early 2020 NBC News reported that West Virginia backtracked on using the smartphone app any further.
Voters with disabilities were able to vote through the blockchain application until this surprising turnaround: ‘’West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner announced that disabled and overseas voters will be able to use a service by Democracy Live, which lets users log in to fill out a ballot online or print one and mail it in’’.
Voatz, the company that developed the application, was already offered through multiple counties in the United States, of which in some cases allowing the overseas military to participate in Federal elections. Cybersecurity experts however expressed their concerns, including MIT researchers, led by Daniel Weitzner, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and founding director of the Internet Policy Research Initiative, causing West Virginia to withdraw completely from this project. According to MIT researchers, the application had more than one critical vulnerability. They state hackers would be able to alter, stop, and even expose individual votes. Beyond that, the third-party vendor for voter identification and verification Voatz was working with posed potential privacy issues for users. In their defense, Voatz stated they have resolved and continue to improve security and privacy concerns.
The critics and concerns of using blockchain for Elections
That leads us to the fair and much needed criticism when it comes to using any technology in voting and elections. As cumbersome and outdated voting by mail and paper ballots may seem, until privacy and security concerns are implemented properly there’s no safer way to vote. This comes at the cost of a lack of transparency and (near) real-time or same day election results.
Unlike West Virginia completely pulling back on new emerging technologies, the country of Russia continues to improve its electronic voting system after more than one large fiasco. In earlier events, citizens' data was leaked after using the e-voting system. They experienced malfunctioning, double voting issues, and other vulnerabilities during the development and trial of this E-voting system for Russian constitutional amendments.
The great thing about Russia is that they have endurance and perseverance. As they continue to innovate and modernize their electronic voting systems, by combining different solutions and technologies including blockchain, they may reach the point of breakthrough first, enabling them to deploy blockchain voting systems at scale. As reported by Cointelegraph: ‘If the initial pilot proves to be a success and this newly developed platform becomes the backbone of Russia's online electoral process, the country could be the first major nation to use blockchain technology for voting’.
Blockchain-based voting should never be a threat to democracy, it should liberate citizens and governments out of trust and transparency issues. The number of pilots is only initiated in small numbers, unfortunately, according to Computerworld: ‘Mainly for shareholder proxy voting and university student government elections. But state and municipal governments have been testing blockchain-based mobile voting over the past years’.
What is voting in blockchain?
Depending on the implementation of blockchain technology, one could achieve several things. A blockchain registered vote could offer transparency. Though, for privacy reasons, governments do need some control in order to prevent personally identifiable information ending up on public blockchains forever. A hybrid approach would therefore be most beneficial, in combination with decentralized identity solutions. Blockchain simply adds a layer of proof, a layer of transparency, and more ownership of your data instead of building up massive amounts of records in databases that only attracts hackers and others who want to cause harm.
How does blockchain voting work?
Since there is not one single blockchain protocol or network in existence, one could think of a wide variety of implementations. Important to consider as well is scalability. The costs are less important, but using Ethereum is just not affordable nation-wide or globally. Instead, again the hybrid blockchain makes sense, as Dragonchain can leverage public networks such as Bitcoin and Ethereum to provide proof and security of combined networks.
Anyone looking to implement blockchain technology in electronic voting systems should look at Dragonchain’s business solutions, including Proof Systems. And decentralized identity software called Factor, as well as third party identity providers going through MyFii.
How blockchain will change the vote
It is important to reamplify that blockchain on its own is not the holy grail of voting and elections, it’s a part of the solution. We see the same in compliance for financial markets and the automotive industry, the healthcare sector, or even provably fair give-aways. Distributed ledger technology should be well understood by those who implement it, for the reasons they are looking to implement it. The same with decentralized identity and self-sovereign identity. Important as well is to research the differences between different types of blockchains.
Anonymity and Secret Ballot
In a voting system, anonymity is a necessity to avoid voter intimidation. A voter should be able to audit their own individual vote as well as be the only person that could identify their own vote on the blockchain.
This can be implemented in a number of ways, however, a modern identity framework that respects the self-sovereignty of data can provide anonymity combined with proof of eligibility.
Proof and Accountability
In a blockchain voting system, it will be possible for the individual voter to check not only that their own vote was counted, but also that it was counted correctly.
With some data components (either a subordinate key mechanism or simple transaction id), a user can search and find their transaction on the blockchain, and validate personally that the vote was cast, counted, and counted appropriately. Without knowledge of this data component, no other user can check another’s vote.
This also makes it possible for a user to prove that they voted if they so choose.
It is fundamental that the system should provide a capability for anyone with access to the system (ideally worldwide on the Internet) to execute an automated audit of vote tally as well as the eligibility of each vote. Given their storage on the blockchain, all information is available to anyone to count the votes independently. This audit would likely include software tools to automate the process, but the user would also be able to manually validate every individual vote or some random sampling therein.
Components may be added to provide risk measurement and statistical analysis to identify possible fraud in the vote.
Activity measurement, registration or census numbers checked against actual votes, and embedded bounty to incentivize audit of polling locations, etc.
Proof of Eligibility
In order to provide proof of eligibility, the used identity will need to be capable of selectively exposing identity information necessary for the determination of eligibility such as age, citizenship, and residency location or voting district information. This is necessary to allow validation of vote in an audit whilst also retaining some level of anonymity.
With proof of eligibility, anyone may audit the system by evaluating eligibility during the vote tally.
The most obvious reason to use decentralized identity is to prevent any possibility of a large database breach or leak, like the one that occurred in Israel. It is however not rational to think there is no involvement of official third parties necessary. Identity providers still play an important role to prove this person really is the person he or she claims to be. Factor allows for these types of integrations and implementations, to ensure no fraudulent votes, double votes, and other ways to cheat occur. The Know Your Customer (KYC) process is a critical part of fair results, with and without distributed ledger technologies, and could be federated too.
Identity Framework and 3rd Party Identity Providers
Necessary to the implementation of the described eligibility is a modern Identity Framework that Dragonchain developed and productized as Factor, which would allow users to independently develop and track key portions of their identity to the system.
The framework would work ideally with independent 3rd party identity providers that would validate the information and provide cryptographically signed documents that would be stored on a blockchain. The documents would be standardized and only expose non-sensitive information on the blockchain, whereas full information would be stored by the 3rd party identity provider or ideally by the user, themselves.
The user may then build a certificate made of selectively chosen identity components and selectively chosen sensitive data to expose.
For voting, this identity certificate could either capture voting eligibility directly, or the components necessary to prove eligibility requirements are met. This eligibility check would need to function in a way that observes the anonymity requirements as well as some level of transparency in the check itself.
If sufficient information is stored on the blockchain (e.g. registration, identity, voting), it can be used as an additional measure of trust. That is, organic and natural activity can often be differentiated from automated or software bot activity that is sufficiently inexpensive. While fraudulent activity may be automated in a manner that may randomize actions, in order to simulate natural human activity, the development of software will become more complex and expensive. Any such activity will also be frozen perpetually for all to see and analyze.
Combining this measure of activity with the application of bounty or frozen value provides a further expense to fraudulent activity, as well as an ability to measure the risk of fraud. If a bounty is applied to every action, then spam or fraudulent activity will become costly, as well as provide an incentive to anyone to find and prove that data is fraudulent or otherwise ineligible. The auditor that finds an error or improper activity can claim that bounty, and the longer a bounty survives in the system without a successful challenge, the more likely it is proper activity.
Boosting voter turn around
There are various reasons why citizens decide not to vote. Trust in the democratic process is definitely one of them. Through the benefits that come with blockchain technology, namely transparency, immutability, and trust, voter turnaround has the potential to improve.
Real-time Election Results
Real-time results could affect how people vote last minute, this can be seen as good and bad, depending on how you look at it. People would be able to vote strategically down to the very last minute to flip the winning vote in a swing state. One could argue this is a democracy, as the vote is still legitimate and everyone is free to vote within the specified time period as they please. Either way, real-time election results bring a whole new dimension to the live news coverage on television...
Add Immutable Proof to the Current Paper Process
This is a controversial topic we’re not going to solve in this article. Even with blockchain-based proof of votes, whether it is through apps on your phone or through other electronic machines, there are too many reasons why one would want to keep paper ballot votes at specified locations. Meaning, you’d still have to get off the couch. ‘Simply’ timestamp and immutably record Proof of Votes in the existing paper process, while anonymity and security are protected, allowing for a more transparent count and result. An important thing to note is that understanding of the different sorts of blockchain technology is still very limited by so many people, and even governments. Furthermore, a lot of misinformation and failed experiments and trials are widely available on the internet.
How to Leverage the power of Bitcoin and Ethereum Correctly
There is a large variety of different types of blockchains available today, far beyond the capabilities of public blockchains such as Ethereum or Bitcoin, which are simply very well designed for very different purposes. Yet Dragonchain is still designed to leverage those specific sets of features that make Ethereum and Bitcoin so powerful, using Interchain. Through Eternal, one can see for themselves how sensitive information can remain fully private on Dragonchain, while still providing combined security and proof of combined systems through selective exposure of either a hash or anything else based upon configuration.
As Nir Kshetri, a professor of management at University of North Carolina, Greensboro described, even with blockchain based solutions like Voatz, we still face transparency issues: ‘Proprietary voting apps like Voatz offer the public no way to know whether voters’ choices are accurately recorded, nor whether these apps truthfully deliver their ballots’ encrypted copy to be counted by election officials. West Virginia officials who hired Voatz have also refused to reveal information. Voatz has said it would not release that information because it had a nondisclosure agreement with the auditors. And for fear, its proprietary system design might be discovered by competitors’.
How Much Transparency?
This also brings up the case of (partially) open source solutions used for voting systems, which any external party or citizen can audit and review at all times. Transparency, e.g. the public proof of votes, is a big portion of why distributed ledger technology should be considered for voting and elections. Lack of transparency is an issue around the world. Beyond (near) real-time election results, there’s always the possibility to offer transparency after the closing of voting locations. Proof reports are anonymous, but at least confirm all votes are legitimate, elections were not tampered with by outside parties such as hackers, and the results are indisputable. Researchers - or philosophers perhaps - should investigate what is more ethical. Not allowing citizens to see indisputable and transparent election results in real-time, or allow citizens to mobilize at the very last minute to swing a state in their favor?
Either way, emerging technologies have the power to transform democracies for the better. Get in touch with Dragonchain to discuss the latest technology solutions available allowing blockchain technology to be incorporated into voting applications and upcoming elections.