Why It’s Not Time for Blockchain Voting (Yet)

It’s a chilly Tuesday morning at the start of November. You get out of bed to inevitably check your phone, and a slew of notifications reminds you that today is Election Day. Reminiscing about the distant times of chaotic, hour-long lines and low voter turnout, you log on to the secure voting platform and cast your ballot. At the end of the day, all of the results are announced — no recounts, no “stolen” votes, no turmoil whatsoever. Sounds like a utopian voting system, right? 

It turns out that this kind of election is actually right at our fingertips. This is thanks to blockchain — a system of information storage that can “link” votes in a digital chain, ensuring everyone’s choices are traceable, unchangeable, and verifiable. These traits allow blockchain voting to be more than just convenient, addressing two fundamental flaws of our current e-voting and mail-in systems: an inability to audit votes and a tendency to lose votes, respectively. In a blockchain-based program, authorities would have access to all votes cast, just as they would with in-person paper ballots. Blockchain even has an added benefit over paper too — because each vote is unable to be changed or removed, certain sources of fraud can be ruled out, particularly in the form of adjusting paper selections or throwing away ballots. All of these aspects of blockchain-based voting contribute to a framework that is theoretically more advanced, secure, and trustworthy than what’s used in the U.S. today.

Blockchain voting also brings a broader benefit to the table: the potential to greatly increase voter turnout. Holding elections online would collapse what today’s non-voters cite as their key barriers, including hours-long queues, lack of a physical ID, an absence of nearby polling stations, and weekday work obligations. Barring unforeseen events like power outages and website delays, blockchain voting would increase election accessibility for the vast majority of American adults.

Multiple successful trial runs for blockchain voting have already occurred. In the Japanese city of Tsukuba, a test election for social programs ran without a hitch. In Zug, Switzerland, citizens were so pleased with the blockchain test that almost 80% of residents said they “welcome the use of e-voting in the city.” Even West Virginia’s Secretary of State, Mac Warner, noted that blockchain worked well in allowing military personnel to vote in the state’s general election. These trials are a far cry from the U.S. presidential election’s enormous scale, but they still display that blockchain can and has been successfully used for voting.

Despite the clear benefits of using blockchain for elections, many government officials are hesitant — even antagonistic — towards the idea of blockchain as used in cryptocurrency, let alone in the very system that put them where they are. One example is Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who cites that cryptocurrency is “a Wild West” and needs stricter regulation. Another is SEC Chairman Gary Gensler, who questioned the trustworthiness of cryptocurrency exchanges, saying we don’t know if “the trading that is reported is real or fake.” In a stance backed by several other legislators from both political leanings, California senator Maxine Waters even requested that Facebook end work on its cryptocurrency, Libra. If the leaders of our country can hardly support blockchain in cryptocurrency, it seems implausible that they would support a blockchain-based voting system — and after all, the only people who can put such a system in place are the legislators themselves.

Still, the technology is here, and the COVID-19 pandemic has already adjusted the American populace to a digital lifestyle. So why do many leaders believe we aren’t ready for blockchain, and how can we reach the stage where we are?

The first roadblock is security. According to a study by four MIT and Harvard researchers, blockchain is unusable for elections because of its susceptibility to serious failures, where the outcome of the election may be changed without being detected. Instead, the researchers support paper as a much more secure voting method due to its verifiability, secrecy, and inability to malfunction. Their lack of faith in online voting is warranted: a blockchain-based system for the 2019 Moscow Parliament election was compromised not once, but twice by scholars hoping to preserve the integrity of such systems. The two scholars showed that the system’s encryption keys (long numbers meant to keep data secure) were actually not long enough to keep data secure, and they also found a way to view results at any point during the election. However, both of these security flaws were addressed by government organizers and patched before the election took place. In contrast to the MIT study’s firm stance against blockchain, the Moscow election system’s break-in and subsequent correction give an example of how blockchain voting security can improve as time goes on and further testing takes place.

The second roadblock is public confidence (or lack thereof) in blockchain. In a country where fraudulent votes are five times less likely than getting struck by lightning, 32% of voters are still adamant that fraud decided the 2020 election, so it’s a fair concern that a method as novel as blockchain would be mistrusted and quickly dismissed by a large branch of the American electorate. Up-and-coming programs like Voatz introduce another avenue for distrust by distributing receipts to voters; as MIT professor Ronald L. Rivest states, this presents the opportunity for vote-buying and voter coercion, which would shatter an election’s integrity. Nonetheless, as blockchain technology continues to garner public awareness, understanding, and trust through its successful use in cryptocurrency and other sectors, voters will begin to gain confidence in blockchain’s ability to also serve as a useful tool for elections.

The third and final roadblock is the alienation of a share of the American population. In 2021, 7% of adults still reported not using the internet whatsoever, and another 20% did not have internet access at home. Be it due to inaccessibility or personal preference, this group would not be able to take advantage of a blockchain-based system. They would still be able to vote in person or by mail, but their lack of blockchain adoption could lead to an undermining of their trust in other votes, and also an undermining of trust in their votes by the rest of Americans. That being said, internet exposure is constantly increasing in the U.S., thus the magnitude of this concern can only fall over time.

So, although blockchain voting has shown promising capabilities and proof of its effectiveness, far more time and testing will be necessary for it to reach the stage of widespread usage in the United States, especially at the level of the presidential election. Until that point, we should strive to continue making progress — be it through an expansion of blockchain outside of voting, support towards legislators who understand and are committed to understanding today’s technology, or larger-scale testing of blockchain elections.

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