Can blockchain save democracy? - FFC Media
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Can blockchain save democracy?

Even the leading world democracies are going through some hard times these days. In a few elections that took place recently systems currently used proved themselves to be vulnerable and insecure. The US presidential elections of 2016 were hacked. Cambridge Analytica managed to interfere into 200 elections worldwide, including influencing the results of the Brexit referendum. Blockchain can help to seal the existing holes and make elections transparent and safe from cyberattacks. 

Elections” rigging is the case even in the advanced democracies

The US presidential race Gore‐Bush Jr. in 2000 turned into the biggest elections‐related scandal the country had even seen. There was a major miscount of the paper ballots in Florida. The study conducted in 2001 concluded that a statewide recount of disputed ballots would very likely have found Albert Gore to be the winner. However, by that time he already admitted his loss and called upon supporting Bush Jr. Even if the recount happened, it would have taken a long time that possibly would have only raised the skepticism towards the final result.

The 2016 elections became special in many ways. Apart from the obvious reasons (Donald Trump becoming the president), there were multiple reports of voter fraud: a few individuals managed to cast their votes in several different states. The situation didn’t spark too much noise and it’s still unclear whether the scale of the fraud was significant. But it’s clear that it did happen. The same elections saw the Democratic National Committee getting hacked by, presumably, Russian hackers.

While the 2000 elections undermined the traditional way of casting votes – paper ballots, the 2016 elections compromised the use of the new technologies in the electoral process and the idea of elections going online, that is becoming more and more popular worldwide, because it can be hacked. 

Even in the United States of America, whose democracy is based upon the idea that elections should and could be trusted, there is no confidence in the electoral process being 100% transparent. Not to mention the authoritarian regimes. All the elections taking place in Russia and other authoritarian countries end up with huge amounts of vote rigging. 

From technical mistakes (USA 2000 and 2016) to intentional rigging and cyberattacks – blockchain could potentially solve all those problems.

Blockchain can secure and modernize the elections’ process

Decentralization of the electoral process with the use of blockchain can make it transparent due to the fundamental principle on which the technology is based – it provides the audit trail: all the blocks in the chain of blocks are connected and if someone tries to alter one of them, the interference will be visible to all the participants. When casting votes as transactions, a blockchain can be created that will keep track of the tallies of the votes. Thus, everyone taking part in voting can watch the process and make sure votes were not altered, erased or illegally added. It is even possible to give voters the opportunity to change their initial decision before the elections are finished. For instance, if a voter sees that their candidate is about to lose, he/she can pick up their vote and give it to another candidate who has chances to win.

Here also lies the solution for the problem of potential hacking. Any attempt to interfere can be easily tracked and proved.

Blockchain also solves the issue that popped up in the US two years ago. It helps to authenticate voters. When using it, you can be sure that a voter both had the right to vote and hasn’t exercised this right in another state yet. The personality of the voter can be proved, for example, biometrically, with the fingerprint on a mobile device. At the same time, it provides anonymity. All the data of the voting will be recorded in an open database and the results – available immediately.

A very easy way to verify a transaction is the main advantage of blockchain and the reason why cryptocurrency companies have been using it so actively. Meanwhile, this feature is applicable to many other areas, including elections.

Another major benefit online elections in general, and particularly blockchain, bring to the table is the easy way to vote remotely, while being anywhere. This can boost the turnout because it will make the procedure simple for those citizens who are outside of the country or their city/state during the election day. 

Besides, governments would benefit from using blockchain because it will significantly low down the costs of the procedure that is currently very expensive.

Issues left to be solved

At the same time, some experts think blockchain that can solve problems in many other areas will not work for elections. For example, Josh Benaloh, a senior cryptographer for Microsoft Research and director of the International Association for Cryptologic Research, thinks that miners (those who approve transactions) cannot necessarily be trusted. He can easily imagine the situation, he says, where a miner would have his/her own interest in the result of elections and, thus, a temptation to interfere in it and record a vote incorrectly. Besides, he says, if miners would manage to get hold of the majority of the blockchain’s mining power (more than 50%), they could easily lead the whole database in any direction they want. However, this could only be possible if the blockchain that the elections run on, is supported by a small number of miners. It’s impossible to imagine a situation of collusion of the majority of miners on blockchains that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum are working on – there are too many of them and they’re spread all over the world.

The companies that are developing voting systems based on blockchain deny any possibility of the interference. CEO of the Massachusetts‐based start‐up Voatz Nimit Sawhney claims that any deliberate manipulation of votes is impossible because it would instantly be apparent to all the miners and the one who tried to rig it will be immediately thrown out of the pool of miners. Besides, he suggests cutting down the number of miners to a very trusted people who won’t get any financial benefit out of it, like bitcoin miners do, but will do it for the sake of democracy and ensuring we have better elections.

Another problem is keeping the vote secrecy while providing everyone the access to the vote count.

There is also an opinion that in dictatorships and authoritarian states governments could use the data they get at the elections against their citizens. Meaning that when casting their vote against the dictator, voters could risk their own safety.

Theoretically, blockchain can provide complete anonymity of a voter. FollowMyVote, a team of enthusiasts in the area of blockchain‐voting, describe a system where the so‐called Identity Verifier “will never know how each voter has voted on their ballot; and, the Registrar will never know the identity of the voter they issue the ballot to, which ensures that each voter’s right to privacy is protected when casting their ballot”.

There is also a method based on complex maths providing the vote secrecy and the access to the vote count at the same time. This cryptographic method is called Zero Knowledge Proof. It has already been executed in the Zcash blockchain. One of the biggest blockchains, Ethereum, has also implemented this technology recently. 

Anyway, it’s hard to imagine a situation where a dictatorship would voluntarily implement the blockchain technology. We would rather imagine politicans, especially in authoritarian countries, like Hungary or Ukraine, trying to prevent blockchain implementation instead of traditional election committees. Those politicians very well know that the one who is voting is less important than the one who’s counting votes. And it’s very unlikely that they would voluntarily give up such an instrument of keeping their power, as control over the forming of electoral committees. 

Ron Rivest, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for more than four decades, raises the issue of the individual confidence. A person who writes their choice down on a piece of paper, he says, can simply refer to the paper if they want to check their vote. While a person “who votes by a screen can see what their vote was, but they can’t see what information that screen actually transmitted to the election authority, or whether that information was tampered with at any step in the process”.

FollowMyVore have figured out how to deal with this as well. In the voting system they have designed, you can follow the elections’ process, and not only see your own vote, but, as already described above, even alter it before the voting is finished. This feature allows you in the situation when your initial candidate has lost his/her chances to win, to give your vote to one of the favorites of the race that you favor more than another (the one who belongs you our party, for instance).

Zero Knowledge Proof mentioned above also lets the voter make sure that their vote was recorded accurately. However, the problem professor Rivest brings up deals with psychology rather than technology. If someone still believes that the Earth is flat it would be hardly possible to convince them that blockchain‐based voting is secure. They would rather believe a neighbor claiming to have seen aliens, rather than a mathematical proof of the correct vote counting that they wouldn’t understand anyway. 

Blockchain‐based elections are coming very soon

Of course, the implementation of the new technology is a time‐consuming process. Any change of this kind takes time, resources and users’ (in this case – citizens’) adaptation to it. This is the main criticism of the idea coming from Joe Kiniry, the CEO of Free and Fair. He thinks that the advantages of blockchain do not compensate the difficulties we’re going to face when adapting to a new technology. And elections initially is a centralized procedure coming from the government: “A single point of control might be easier to keep secure in an era when digital manipulation of election results seems to be a grim reality”.

However, no one has managed to hack the blockchain that Bitcoin and Ethereum are working on so far, while hackings of the highly protected Pentagon and NASA centralized systems did happen a few times. Although, the cryptocurrencies’ blockchains are more attractive for hackers financially.

However, all the experts, even those who are still skeptical, are sure that the blockchain‐based elections on national level will be held very soon, in a year or two. Many countries are already testing the technology, even though on a smaller scale so far. For example, Switzerland held a municipal referendum on blockchain in the city of Zug. The country, that has direct democracy and 4 referendums a year on average, has been testing the alternative ways of voting that would provide 100% transparency, low down the costs and involve young people who are used to getting everything done through internet on their mobile devices.

West Virginia has become the first American state to hold blockchain‐based primaries (by the way, on the base of Voatz that was already mentioned above).

Despite a low turnout at some of those experimental elections, the technology has proved its consistency and was approved by the majority of voters.

Mikhail Saakashvili, former president of Georgia and influential Ukranian opposition politician now, insists on implementing blockchain in Ukraine. Politician, who is arguing for building the representative democracy based on the Swiss model, suggests to get rid of the institute of the electoral committee and replace corrupted officials, who are appointed by the government and assisting them in rigging elections, with a new technology that would allow citizens to have a direct say in the current affairs.

Elections, even in the advanced democracies, are facing fraud and hacking these days. Blockchain is the most promising way to counteract those issues; the technology that can make elections transparent and secure, and voting – simple.

Despite the concerns that some experts still have on whether it’s worthy to implement blockchain in elections or not, many countries have already started testing it, and have been successful so far. Of course, the implementation of the technology on a bigger scale will take some time and effort – politicians will have to understand the nuances of it, and very often politicians are not the most educated people. Besides, some of them will surely try to scare their citizens with the far‐fetched complexity of the technology and it’s made‐up flaws to secure for themselves the instrument of adjusting the results with the help of electoral committees. However, many experts think that in some countries state‐level elections based on blockchain will take place in the next couple of years.

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