The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the United States government to explore new voting technologies, since voting in person at the polls could prove to be a “super spreader” event that leads to thousands of new coronavirus infections and ultimately, deaths. There is a newer but highly secure technology that some have proposed as a solution that would allow Americans to vote remotely. That technology is blockchain. Using blockchain for voting may seem like a great idea in concept, but there are some obstacles that will need to be overcome. So let’s examine a blockchain solution for voting, how blockchain technology works and why the government may still pursue blockchain for voting in the future — once the technology has been refined and adapted for this unique process.
The Problems of Voting by Mail in U.S. Elections
Voting by mail has always been an option for those requesting absentee ballots, for example. But the November 3, 2020 Presidential election is expected to push the already-struggling USPS to the limit. In recent months, President Donald Trump controversially appointed a new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy — a longtime Republican fundraiser and donor to the President’s campaigns. Postmaster General DeJoy promptly proceeded to make a number of controversial changes within the USPS, such as removing dozens of high-volume mail sorting machines and banning overtime, along with prohibiting the practice of of making additional mail runs to accommodate surges in mail volume. These changes were quite concerning, as they left the public (and politicians) questioning whether the USPS could handle an onslaught of millions of ballots.
Courts have already intervened to compel the USPS to restore the recently-removed high-volume mail sorting machines. The USPS was also ordered to pre-approve overtime for the two weeks surrounding election day in an effort to ensure that all ballots are delivered and counted in a timely manner. Courts have ordered that all ballots are prioritized in a manner equal to or better than USPS First Class Mail.
If we put USPS-related issues aside, we still have the issues of alleged mail-in voter fraud. President Trump has alleged that mail-in voting is prone to fraud, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. In fact, there are many states with fairly large mail-in voting programs which have reported extraordinarily low rates of fraud. But even with evidence that the current mail-in programs work well, combined with the voter’s ability to track their ballot’s movement through the system, some fear that voter confidence may already be adversely impacted.
This has prompted some to suggest the usage of a fairly new and very reputable technology: blockchain, which has long been used as the foundation of cryptocurrency transactions involving Bitcoin (amongst others).
Using Blockchain for Voting: How Would it Work?
Using blockchain for voting would work in a fairly straightforward manner. Using a decentralized and distributed network of computing and data storage resources, blockchain allows data to be transferred and recorded in a safe, reliable manner. The records, called “blocks,” are linked or “chained” together using cryptography technology. This interlinking mechanism is an essential element of blockchain, as you cannot edit a single record without impacting an interlinked record. Blockchain data is distributed across the entire system, so a piece of data doesn’t “live” in a single location. This makes it essentially impossible to modify blockchain records without detection. The decentralized distributed nature of blockchain also means it’s impervious to outages.
The US could theoretically create a blockchain-based voting system, with an online portal that would allow for in-person voting at the polls or remote voting. Each voter would theoretically be provided with a login — perhaps their social security number — which would be used to create a blockchain record that would include the individual’s votes.
This sort of system would be highly secure and efficient. What’s more, the costs of an election could be dramatically reduced since you would have the ability to centralize voting in a single platform that would not require any sort of manual ballot handling or counting. But as wonderful as this all sounds, we’re just not ready to use blockchain for voting on a national scale. There are some major obstacles that we’ve yet to overcome, at least in time for the 2020 election.
Why Isn’t the US Using Blockchain for Voting in the 2020 Election?
First and foremost, the COVID-19 pandemic onset was sudden and unpredictable. Unfortunately, even if we had identified the need for an alternative to in-person voting at the very start of the pandemic, we still wouldn’t have had sufficient time to build a one-of-a-kind online voting framework using blockchain technology. This sort of platform would require extensive engineering and testing to ensure its security, reliability and integrity. We just didn’t have sufficient time to build and refine a blockchain voting system in time for the November 3, 2020 election.
Blockchain technology has already been tested in a number of different industries, such as the healthcare industry, where it was trialed for medical record storage. In fact, blockchain voting was trialed in 2017 and 2018. It was found that while the actual blockchain infrastructure was robust, the voting terminals — made by several different manufacturers — were vulnerable to attacks. If the data that’s inputted into the blockchain system is invalid, then you’ve successfully undermined the entire system.
The Problem of Voter Authentication and Identity Verification
It’s very easy to impersonate another individual when using an online interface. This poses a major obstacle for the implementation of a blockchain voting technology.
Brazil is one nation that’s actively pursuing the use of an Ethereum blockchain for its 145 million registered voters. All was going well until they encountered a major problem that arose from using blockchain for voting: voter authentication / verification.
The democratic process is easily undermined if you cannot verify a registered voter’s identity. So, Brazil is tasked with developing a tamper-proof system that allows users to authenticate their identity at the time when the vote is being cast.
The Problem of Scalability and Speed
Bitcoin has seen noticeable and fairly significant slowdowns in transactions as values have spiked. These times of high demand took a noticeable toll on the cryptocurrency’s blockchain infrastructure. This is a bit concerning because election day will bring millions of transactions over a fairly brief period of time. A delay in processing could be problematic since results would be expected at the end of the day.
“It’d be incredibly difficult to scale. There’s a statistic on Bitcoin transactions that [the blockchain] can only handle seven transactions per second. If you [use this technology] in an election, it might be possible in a voting context if you’ve got thousands rather than millions [of voters].” – Catherine Hammon, digital revolution knowledge lawyer at Osborne Clarke, told ZDNet.
Clearly, scalability is an issue, but it’s theoretically possible that blockchain voting could work at a smaller, more localized scale, where there are thousands of voters instead of many millions. Perhaps multiple stand-alone blockchain frameworks would be preferable to a single national voting blockchain. But there are still some challenges surrounding identity verification / authentication for voters. If we can resolve these issues, then using blockchain for voting could offer some major benefits such as the creation of tamper-proof voting data that could not be altered.
Hammon explained to ZDNet, “Once the data about the voting is on the blockchain, it’s locked down, it can’t be changed, you can add up the count and see it’s correct. That’s really valuable…It isn’t a cure-all remedy for [electronic] voting, but there are many ways in which it does help with some of the problems.”
Clearly, now isn’t the right time to introduce blockchain for voting, but you can still leverage online technology to register to vote and to request a ballot by mail. And blockchain is very well-suited to other applications and usages. Blockchain is just one of the many innovative technologies that we work with here at 7T. We specialize in digital transformation through emerging technologies, as we integrate cutting-edge solutions into virtually every development project. From mobile app development, to custom software projects such as CRM platforms or ERP development, we’re ready to deliver collaborative, multi-phased software development services.
7T has offices in Dallas, Houston, Chicago, and Austin, but our clientele spans far beyond Texas and the midwest. If you’re ready to harness the power of a custom software platform and today’s most innovative technologies, contact 7T today.