E-Voting systems under the spotlight

E-voting has been under the spotlight in the past few months, and as the world moves inexorably online in the face of COVID-19, how close are we to finding a real solutions? The adverse publicity around an apparently hastily-built voting app made all the wrong headlines as chaos ensued at the Iowa caucases. After all, voting feels like an instinctive, simple process. We raise our hands to elect the class president, drop slips of paper into hats, buckets or sealed boxes depending on the nature of the vote, phone a premium line to choose the winner or loser of a reality TV show, or pick an option on an app. The arrival of blockchain technology has added a new dimension to the public clamour for reliable systems of voting. How hard can it be to build something which works?

Complexity and security

The process is far more complex than you think, say academics who have been working on electronic voting (e-voting) for many years. There are significant cybersecurity risks to be addressed, including but not limited to system penetration, spoof voting sites, attempts to vote multiple times, and malware on devices. As voting is generally managed by a single central administration, whether that is a country, a political party, or a trade union, there may also be threats from within the organisation itself, whether that involves intentional manipulation of results or innocent parties falling for phishing scams. The natural centralisation of voting should also give blockchain enthusiasts pause for thought. This is not a process which can be rendered public and disintermediated, as electoral authorities have to run an election according to the laws of their country or the constitution of the organisation. However, blockchain does have an essential role to play in e-voting.

Secrecy vs transparency

The balancing act for voting is to manage security concerns and to ensure that the ballot is both secret and transparent enough for the result to be trusted. Cryptography is one of the tools available to achieve this, and blockchain is an important part of developing trustworthy e-voting. Writing for the New Statesman in May 2019, University of Surrey cyber security centre director, Steve Schneider, explained that “transparency and end-to-end verifiability are essential ingredients in electronic voting systems.”

Academics have been working on e-voting since before the advent of blockchain, developing ways for individuals to verify independently that their vote has indeed been counted as intended, and for the public to check that the votes have been tallied correctly. Pilots such as the Verifiable Classroom Voting (VCV) system developed by Professor Feng Hao of Warwick University, and Schneider’s own past work, originally relied on posting results to a bulletin board, but blockchain delivered the technology to make this public record immutable and fully distributed. There are caveats. The blockchain must be permissioned rather than public. There is a need for a two-stage consensus to ensure that voters get an immediate confirmation that their vote has been cast and recorded correctly: waiting for a Proof of Work consensus for each vote on a public blockchain would simply take too long to be practical. Trials of the Surrey team’s Verify My Vote (VMV) system took place in summer 2019, and while this work is a giant step towards a transparent and verifiable electronic voting system, it is likely to be some years before this is mature enough for a political or statutory election.

Digital inclusion, digital exclusion

There is already a mobile blockchain voting application on the market which tallies the vote from a known population. The state of West Virginia ran a pilot program enabling 150 overseas voters to participate in the November 2018 midterm election using the Voatz app, and the city of Denver also tested the app in its May 2019 municipal election for 4,000 eligible active-duty military and overseas voters. In both cases election officials reported an increased turnout in the small sample. E-voting in our online world may well offer a new route for people to participate in democracy. At the most public level, blockchain technology also has the potential to eliminate electoral fraud and ensure that no citizen is disenfranchised. The UN’s ID2020 programme is committed to improving lives through digital identity, and one of the outcomes is enabling the previously disenfranchised to vote. Digital identities are already used in Estonia to ensure that all those eligible to vote can do so, while maintaining anonymity in relation to the votes cast.

Emerging technologies give power to the people, and as a wise man once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. On the flip side of the coin, we must be wary of digital exclusion. There are no digital skills required to put a cross in a box. If traditional systems are to be supplanted by the latest technology (properly tested and thoroughly reliable, of course) we must ensure that making the process more accessible for some does not disenfranchise others. Trusted e-voting is coming to a ballot near you. Be ready.

Originally published via LinkedIn Pulse, February 2020 https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/e-voting-under-spotlight-kate-baucherel/ You can read more about e-voting and other public sector blockchain initiatives in “Blockchain Hurricane“, available now.

Kate Baucherel