Blockchain For Elections: Advantages, Cases, Challenges
Blockchain elections have been theorized as perfect use-cases for the new technology, and now they are starting to make strides in the real world.
The list of potential uses for blockchain technology span many different sectors with the belief being that almost every facet of life, from finance, technology, economics and sociology, can be disrupted by this decentralized force.
However, it is in politics, and especially elections where there is a buzz building about the positive influence blockchain technology can bring to the ballot boxes. Elections have been subject to scrutiny and corruption for so long that many in the tech space, as well as electoral committees are viewing blockchain as the future of fair elections.
There have been some use-cases already where blockchain has come to the aid of elections. Different countries and organizations have begun experimenting with the immutable distributed ledger that offers transparency and security.
However, the ball is only starting to get rolling as across the globe digital ballots and blockchain elections make great strides.
From Sierra Leone to Virginia
On March 7, it was reported as an apparent world-first that Sierra Leone has employed blockchain technology in tallying its presidential elections - according to Agora CEO Leonardo Gammar.
However, it appeared as if Gammar had jumped the gun as the technology had not been directly used to tally the votes, rather it was run alongside the normal process as a demonstration of how the election could be conducted using blockchain technology.
This led to a media storm as the Sierra Leone government denied the use of blockchain, and forced Gammar to rectify the issue, which he did to Cointelegraph, stating that they were trying to showcase its possibilities.
Despite the furore, the fact remained that blockchain elections were starting to surface, and there appeared to be interest in the possibility of organizations as big as national governments turning to the technology for their possible use.
Gammar told Cointelegraph that the National Electorial Commission in Sierra Leone was still interested in having them back for by-elections scheduled to run in the country.
“By-elections are coming up in a few weeks time and I will be going back to Sierra Leone to see how we can further demonstrate and develop the blockchain voting potential. They are still keen to see what can be done despite this media storm.”
A little smaller in scale, but equally important, polls closed in West Virginia's primary election on May 8 seeing the completion of the first government-run, blockchain-supported vote in US history.
Again, this was not a full blockchain election, as it was only available to a select group of voters, such as military members. However, the response was again positive as experimenting with the use of blockchain in voting continues to be ramped up.
Mike Queen, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner’s communications director said:
"[The office of the Secretary believes] blockchain does provide a heightened level of security on this type of mobile voting app. We're genuinely hoping that will allow this type of a mobile app to be made available in the future – as early perhaps as our general election – to military voters."
However, while the election in West Virginia seemed to have gone off without a hitch, there are some that see it as “completely nuts.”
Duncan Buell, a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina who focuses on voting systems and election integrity, has been strongly opposed to digital voting from as far back as 2015 and feels like this new idea of blockchain voting brings in too many issues.
“I am strongly opposed to electronic voting, and I think the whole notion of internet voting is completely nuts,” Buell says.
“There are a number of issues that come up. The first is authentication. How do you verify who’s at the other end?”
He is more referring to the company, Voatz, which ran the election here and their protocols which include fingerprint-scanning or facial-recognition technology on its users' smartphones, but Buell maintains these can be hacked.
What does blockchain offer?
The interest in blockchain technology taking over from traditional election methods has potential advantages due to the big technological upgrade from how elections are currently held. Many national elections still take place using a paper-based system, leaving open huge holes for security breaches, fraud, and corruption.
Blockchain offers an updated system for voters that could potentially fix these concerns.
Its traditional assets, such as its transparency, allow for votes to be followed, counted, and correlated by many different sources while still maintaining the privacy of the voters due to the anonymous transactions along the blockchain.
Security is also key in fair elections as each vote needs to be guarded and respected, which is often not the case.
“[Online] voting imposes extremely stringent requirements on the security of every aspect of voting. We believe that the blockchain technology is the missing link in the architecture of a viable online voting system.”
Nimo Naamani, of Horizen State, a company that is working to build secure blockchain voting systems, told Cointelegraph why organizations as big as national governments are suddenly interested in blockchain elections:
“Elections are the heart of democracy. Any government or electoral committee is going to take their job very seriously when it comes to changing the way elections are carried out.”
Naamani explained that Horizon State is currently in talks with two governments, however, he cannot divulge which two countries they are. But their responses give good insight into the perception of this technology as it currently stands in this sector.
Horizon State have recently launched their consensus tools in Indonesia, which could indicate where the epicenter of blockchain interest could be emanating from, although Naamani still denies that Indonesia is one of the governments.
“The two governments I have discussed general elections on the blockchain with - one said it is interesting but they do not want to be the first” Naamani added. “They also mentioned that cost is not much of an issue for them, but transparency and accountability are paramount.
“The second government - they are very much actively thinking about it, and I think they will definitely have an election running on the blockchain in the next 4 years.”
Like is so often the case, the wait-and-see approach - which is also gripping the banking sector when it comes to blockchain - is a factor that is slowing the adoption of the new technology down. However, it is also understandable why these nations are not diving headlong into blockchain elections without through testing being down. As Naamani added:
“When you have a appetite for technology, and being at the forefront - government and regulators will do what they can to achieve it. However, they will not risk the election going wrong. This is a must-not-fail situation.”
Goes even beyond voting
Because blockchain technology is still very much in the embryonic stages of its disruption across many aspects of society, it has a long way to go. However, there are some real strides in finance - banks are building blockchains, corporations are decentralizing, and similar advances are being made in politics and voting.
However, these are still only examples of use-cases in which the technology can prove itself before it becomes a foundational technology on which new building blocks of society are laid upon.
This is the view of Muhammed Arafath, of APLA blockchain, a company that provides blockchain platforms for governments to onboard their existing applications. One such use is also voting related as, in Dubai, the company is providing voting applications for businesses to use in their annual general meetings etc.
Arafath sees the blockchain transcending simple use-cases such as voting and elections, and rather becoming a ‘foundational element’.
“If you ask me, this is just the tip of the iceberg, the kind of projects we are working on, we believe blockchain will essentially cut across all industries, and it will go down to the foundational technology.”
“These use-cases are just to test and understand how the system functions, it is just to get a feel, than to go forwards. There will be further cases, which are more in depth and more engaging, and more at the foundational level,” Arafath added.
The blockchain infrastructure
Blockchain technology certainly has many different use-cases, with some more advanced in terms of their potential, and many differing in their time-to-market. However, blockchain’s growth and sophistication in spaces such as finance and elections would lead to a global blockchain infrastructure being laid down.
The fact that major corporations, banks, and now governments - both in terms of regulation, and for elections - are looking deeply into the blockchain means that there is a big future building for it. If it can be shown to be a success in electing a country's leader, helping enact democratic needs and ensuring that democracy is enacted fairly, then there's not much else that can stop it.