Can Blockchain Voting Restore Trust in Our Democracy?

From 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Tuesday, November 7, 2018, Ontaria Woods waited in line at the polls in Snellville, Georgia. The governor’s race between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams was neck-and-neck, but statewide there had been voting machine malfunctions, shortages of batteries and power cords, and problems reading and processing ballots. Staggeringly long lines frustrated many voters and surely deterred many from even trying to vote.[1]

How could such a hotly contested election be thrown into question by the fragility of our voting system? Antiquated technology like the 2002-era voting machines used in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election can create frustration and inefficiency.[2] Even worse, it can open the door to mass voter suppression, security risks and even distrust in the systems keeping our democracy afloat.

What if there were a secure, efficient and easy way to vote that could eradicate inaccuracies and restore trust in our democracy? That’s where blockchain technology could revolutionize our voting system by placing control not in a single authority figure, but in the hands of every single voter.

But what is blockchain, and how does it work?

A blockchain is a database consisting of “blocks” of data chained together chronologically. Each block contains (1) the data within it, (2) a timestamp marking when the block was added, and (3) two addresses called “hashes” which contain the location and public keys of the sender and receiver. One address describes the location of that particular block, and the other describes the location of the block before it.[3]

It would be very difficult to alter even one block on the chain because every single block is related to the one next to it. In the context of voting, for example, tampering with just one vote would give the block it resides on a new address. This new address would not match up with the one written on the block before it, or the block before it, and so on. Therefore, if there is ever any inconsistency in the data, the block is cross-referenced with each block on the chain. If the majority’s records show that the block is faulty, they will automatically correct the inconsistency and revert the block to its original form. This puts authority not in a sole figure but in every block of the chain.[3]

So if someone wanted to alter a vote, they would need to control 51% of all blocks in the chain so that the majority would agree upon the new, tampered ballot.[3] For a large-scale blockchain system like a U.S. presidential election, this would require millions of dollars of infrastructure and vast amounts of computational power, which would most likely make tampering impractical. It would also be blatantly obvious to every voter that there has been mass tampering since all of these changes would be recorded in the blockchain.[4]

The benefits of voting via blockchain would be abundant:

  • Increased voter turnout. In one of the first implementations of blockchain voting in the U.S., some West Virginian counties in 2018 offered overseas voters the option to vote via the mobile app Voatz, which uses blockchain technology. Only 144 people ended up using the app to vote, but a University of Chicago study found that this was 3 to 5 percentage points higher than it would have been.[5] Despite a small sample size and a limited increase in turnout, it provides hope for further applications of blockchain voting. Furthermore, blockchain voting could provide more voting options for those living overseas, military personnel and people with disabilities.
  • Ensures accuracy and eliminates the need for recounts. Elections with hand-counted ballots can legally be subjected to recounts, which is expensive and time-consuming. More often than not, these recounts yield different sums, especially during a large election. A computer, on the other hand, would count votes accurately, no matter the size of the population.
  • Reduces cost. According to Investopedia, a single vote can cost between $7 and $25, whereas a vote cast via blockchain would cost around $0.50 per vote. This could drastically cut costs for all levels of government.[6]

However, some experts have raised concerns about the security of blockchain, saying that its use on a mass scale could compromise the integrity of democratic elections. The following are a few of the disadvantages of using blockchain:

  • The possibility of “serious failures” is higher. A team of cybersecurity experts from MIT spoke out against the use of blockchain in elections, citing the risk that should 51% of the blocks on the chain be tampered with, this would dramatically change the course of the election and potentially affect millions of ballots. In other words, though the possibility of a security compromise is small, the repercussions would be massive. With a paper system, on the other hand, it is harder to successfully execute ballot tampering on the same scale as is possible with blockchain.[7]
  • Voter verifiability could be more susceptible to attacks. The same MIT team explained that a bug in the system could cause the physical interface that a voter sees on a voting app to be inaccurate. This means although a voter pressed the button for Candidate A on their smartphone and received verification of their vote, they could, in reality, be fooled about who they actually voted for.7
  • The stakes are much higher than other applications of blockchain. Some critics of blockchain voting disagree with the likening of blockchain-based voting systems to companies like Bitcoin. Bitcoin has been using blockchain technology for financial transactions for years with relative success, but experts have pointed out that while an errant charge or even fraud can be fixable, there is no way to “refund” a fraudulent ballot or make it up to the maligned voter. The only real solution would be completely re-running the election, which would be problematic for a host of other reasons.7

Despite these reservations about the security of blockchain, some areas have already begun to use blockchain voting. Utah County made headlines when it allowed its residents to use the blockchain-based mobile app Voatz to vote in the 2020 presidential election.[8] West Virginia was the first state to use blockchain voting in 2018 (though it since has retreated to more traditional ways of voting).[9]

Will blockchain technology become part of our elections in the future? Until some of the security risks are addressed and apprehension towards this new technology wears off, probably not soon. In the meantime, small-scale implementations of blockchain may provide experience and data to improve these systems and strengthen them for the future.

Americans’ trust in our government has degraded to an extreme degree – only one third of Americans trust the government to “do what is right.”[10] The words “fake news” and “alternative facts” have been commonplace, and politics have become mercilessly cutthroat. Although blockchain technology is not perfect, its transparency could be a step in the right direction – a step away from the erosion of our trust in democratic systems and towards a future where we can be more confident in our government and in each other.