The digital era and rise of informational technology has undoubtedly posed challenges to democracy- the dissemination of fake news and ease of fraud all exacerbate existing fault lines. The use of blockchain systems provides a unique opportunity to reverse this by improving access to voting and, most importantly, insulating it from fraud.
The United States electoral system is rife with inefficiencies and suppressive mechanisms that impede free and fair civic participation. Among these, voter fraud is one of the most intimidating challenges to democracy. False registration, duplicate voting, and impersonation each prevent accurate tabulation of results. The logistical complexities of organizing elections make these issues difficult to mitigate. A joint project of Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers, and Northwestern Universities conducted a survey to understand Americans' trust in election fairness and institutions. The troubling results elucidates the gravity of electoral distrust: 38% of Americans lack confidence in the fairness in the 2020 presidential election, with 60% of Americans concerned about inaccurate or biased vote counts, 57% concerned about mail-in ballot fraud, and 52% concerned about illegal votes from non-citizens. This loss of faith could have damaging repercussions for executive legitimacy, paving the way for further restrictive voting laws to gain ground. The greatest culprit is the public perception of voter fraud. The lack of transparency inherent in the process of accurately tabulating votes with such high stakes naturally engenders skepticism. The rise of global populism only further exacerbates this dangerous disbelief in electoral integrity, threatening democratic institutions. The 21st century solution to this age-old problem? The integration of blockchain technology into electoral systems.
In common parlance, blockchain is associated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, but the technology itself is not inextricably tied to its monetary applications. Blockchain acts as a public, transparent ledger system where data is grouped into blocks and linked on a chain. This system, which records data across many computers, is inherently decentralized, and each computer in the network eventually has a copy of the same data in the same order. The length and complexity of the chain makes alteration impossible- information can’t be removed or changed once it exists on the chain, but new data can be added. Tampering with data on the chain is categorically prohibited by its structure- censoring another user's input from processing is impossible.
The public nature of this system engenders mutual trust and possesses great potential to improve electoral processes. In practice, blockchain technology could enable a transparent, secure, and efficient method of counting and casting votes. This would enhance facets of civic participation that are currently suffering. A voter could vote through any node, or single data point in the larger network, through encryption, and the vote will be sent to all nodes and added to a block, reaching every node of the network. The source code of the voting system can be deployed on the Ethereum network through smart contract and invoked via on-chain transactions.The smart contract, which automatically executes transactions absent the interference of a third party if certain criteria are met, would display the voting message, using it to off-chain compute results as they come in in real time. The public and open nature of a blockchain ledger system not only gives each user the ability to audit every individual transaction that has occurred on the chain, but the ability to verify the authenticity of the entire system, enabling both unmatched levels of transparency and reliable anonymity for individual voters. When applied to electoral systems, this has the potential to improve public confidence, restoring trust in democratic institutions. Self-tallying of votes would occur in real time, eliminating the possibility for counting errors. The decentralized nature of the system eliminates the need for administration from a central party, reducing the ability of outside influences to corrupt or influence raw electoral data.
The same provisions that make blockchain an efficient system to manage cryptocurrencies also make it ideal for voting- provisions that prevent double-spending of digital currencies can prevent voter fraud by eliminating the ability to cast duplicate votes. A digital system would allow users to cast a ballot from any physical location, increasing civic participation and reducing the cost of conducting elections. Cumbersome and restrictive regulations that result in voter suppression could be alleviated. A Pennsylvania state supreme court decision shortly before the 2020 election ruled that ballots within secrecy envelopes that hide voter identity would be declared invalid, resulting in mass discarding of ballots. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of states demanded that mail-in ballots be signed by a notary, a requirement still maintained by a handful of states. 35 states currently mandate that voters show a government-issued photo ID at the polls to cast a vote, and of the millions of Americans who don't possess one, a disproportionate number are people of color. The need for stringent voter ID laws, which often result in disenfranchisement, would be alleviated by the creation of a digital ledger that only requires user authentication once, and then permanently establishes a unique token, similar to a SSN, for each user.
Replacing the current manual system of vote authentication that is prone to error with a digital one would increase electoral accuracy. Paper ballots engender seemingly endless potential for flawed outcomes. In the 2018 Virginia state legislature elections, a single vote determined the outcome of onerace. The ballot was unclear, as the voter drew lines through some choices, obfuscating the ability to clearly interpret their intent. That singular ballot made the outcome a tie. The state broke the tie by drawing names out of a bowl, resulting in a Republican victory. The potential for such flaws would be eliminated by a digital system, which would allow for instant auditing of the voting record.
Though a seemingly radical technological development, blockchain is already beginning to be used across the nation. The Vote Watcher Project documents open-source election data on the blockchain. Working with Republican Presidential candidate Rand Paul, the organization recorded 2016 Iowa caucus results on long-term storage on the blockchain. This illustrates the ease with which a digital ledger system can be integrated into existing electoral frameworks. Smaller startups like Milvum and VotoSocial have begun to create similar systems. West Virginia worked with Boston-based startup Voatz to become the first state to pilot blockchain voting in its primary election for military voters deployed overseas. West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner emphasized the implications that this could have on voting, and described it as the "wave of the future”, stating that “blockchain technology and a voter-verified digital trail of their ballot, will prove to be a secure alternative to the burdensome absentee voting processes”.
While it has only been used in smaller elections so far, blockchain voting is scalable to larger races. Cardano and Ethereum founder Charles Hoskinson has revealed that his team is planning on working with state officials to integrate a Cardano-based blockchain voting system in the 2022 Wyoming primary elections. Hoskinson’s team is currently building infrastructure that would re-tool the voting system from the ground up, starting in small local elections and expanding the technology to state municipalities and national elections. A digital system is more suitable for managing and indexing large amounts of data, especially when accuracy is imperative and the stakes are high. Smart contracts, which tabulate votes in real time, can handle more data at higher speeds than human counters ever could.
Given economic and social trends, this movement towards digitization in politics is all but inevitable. Technology is integral to our economic system, and its influence in both the public and private sector is only growing. The digital era and rise of informational technology has undoubtedly posed challenges to democracy- the dissemination of fake news and ease of fraud all exacerbate existing fault lines. Given the threats these pose to democratic integrity, a recapitulation of technology may be necessary for the survival and evolution of our democracy in the 21st century. The use of blockchain systems provides a unique opportunity to reverse this by improving access to voting and, most importantly, insulating it from fraud. The greatest barrier to the widespread adoption of this system is simply misinformed apprehension. If we hope to make our electoral system more suitable to address the challenges of our changing world, we cannot underestimate the transformative potential of blockchain technology.
Meera Sehgal is a first year Political Science and Communications double major at American University. She is a staff writer at the America Agora.