At the heart of any democratic voting system lies two principles – anonymity and security. Anonymity is necessary to ensure that outside forces cannot influence the cast votes. This can take the form of old-timey brickbat thugs at the polling location or more subtle forms of influence, like tying a person’s vote to rewards or punishments after the fact. A secure voting system prevents one of the involved parties from corrupting the vote by manipulation, miscounting, or misrepresentation.
For most of recorded history, these two requirements were satisfied by compelling the voter to be physically present and to physically place a physical object – a colored pebble, in the case of ancient Athens, or a slip of paper – into a hidden reservoir guarded by an ostensibly independent election committee.
This process has strong parallels to modern financial systems. An individual uses a financial instrument that is given weight by an independent third party, like a bank, to make his or her choice of good or service known. The whole system hinges on the trustworthiness and efficiency of that third party.
An apocryphal quote attributed to former USSR strongman dictator Joseph Stalin goes, “It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes.”
Blockchain technology offers a way to streamline the voting process and improve access while at the same time removing the human element that causes electoral chaos. Florida’s famous hanging chads and dubious elections in the Third World could soon be a thing of the past.
One Man, One Vote
Limiting a potential voter to just one vote while maintaining his or her anonymity is a delicate balancing act. If the process is too restrictive, voters could be turned away due to lack of proper identification. Too lax, and the system becomes a playground for fraudsters.
History is littered with examples. Voter ID laws have caused major consternation in border states with high immigrant populations, in the first case.
In the second, the situation appears even more prone to gaming. The author Edgar Allen Poe is believed to have been the fatal victim of “cooping” in October 1849. Cooping involved drugging or threatening a voter to compel him or her to visit the polls again and again, often in a variety of disguises. Poe was ultimately found babbling in a gutter, down the road from a polling station, wearing clothes that did not belong to him. He died shortly after.
Registering the dead to vote is also a popular tactic and one that reportedly resurfaced as late as 2016.
The immediate financial parallel here is counterfeiting, a problem that is neatly solved by blockchain’s use of cryptographic methods to timestamp and verify each coin. In a blockchain-based system, the principle of “one man, one vote” could be strictly enforced by the nature of the blockchain itself and its distributed ledger. While at least one major entity has warned that Bitcoin could, conceivably, be counterfeited, the argument rests less on technological knowledge and more on historical precedents. Fiat currency has been counterfeited in the past, the Bank of Canada argued, so Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies could also be counterfeited. This doesn’t stand up to technological scrutiny or experience, however.
The Electronic Ballot Box
Blockchain readily lends itself to the concept of a hidden ballot. In fact, privacy and the lack of central monitoring are what gave Bitcoin its most notorious use case to date – as the currency of choice for the Silk Road.
There are a host of self-professed privacy coins, each with its own pros and cons. Critics argue that no coin can be truly, absolutely anonymous. This is largely supported by cases in which some large agency with a lot of time, money, and manpower at its disposal – like the U.S. government – managed to link spent Bitcoins with their respective owners.
The tech has evolved by leaps and bounds since the Silk Road, however. It is easier than ever for crypto users to hide behind the distributed ledger, as the Internal Revenue Service has learned to its chagrin.
While it’s possible that a huge, monolithic agency might be able to brute-force its way into breaking a voting crypto’s anonymity, it’s highly unlikely. It would be far easier, in fact, to attack a traditional system, via the monitoring of ballot boxes or the insertion of corrupt counters. Even newer electronic systems are more vulnerable, as individual IP addresses could conceivably be linked to a specific vote. The introduction of a blockchain essentially removes the fat red target on the ballot box, giving all contributors an extra level of safety.
Ghost in the Machine
The knee-jerk reaction most folks have to voting via machine or voting online is the danger of those machines being manipulated by their makers or outside hackers. This is somewhat linked to the idea of anonymity, in that a broken ballot box or a closely monitored system could tie cast voters to their owners. What if a bad actor, however, was more ambitious? What if the idea wasn’t just to manipulate or identify votes but to skew the system entirely?
Here, again, the blockchain comes to the rescue. Just as it is currently impossible to double-spend Bitcoin due to its cryptographic time stamp, it is impossible to manipulate the end result of an election that’s using a cryptocurrency for voting purposes. There is no single machine to hack or infect with a virus. Likewise, there is no algorithm that can be tweaked to change the way votes are counted.
Haven’t some cryptos been hacked? Yes and no, and it largely depends on what you mean by “hacked.” In the vast majority of cases, when a crypto user has been “hacked,” they were the victim of a phishing scheme. In other words, their credentials were somehow impersonated by a bad actor to gain access to their crypto funds. While technically possible, this isn’t likely to complicate a voting scenario as it would require a separate “hack” on thousands or millions of individual voters – an identity theft scheme of grandiose scale. It would likely be easier – and cheaper – to just target an election that was not employing crypto.
What about large-scale attacks, like the $500 million XEM heist on Coincheck or the Bitfinex hack? In the XEM instance, Coincheck admitted that it essentially provided hackers with an easy target in the form of a hot wallet without multi-signature authentication. It’s also worth noting that the stolen funds were found on the blockchain and blacklisted, so to speak, from future use. The Bitfinex hack, meanwhile, is highly likely to have been an inside job. That scenario is tough to defend against, whether you’re using crypto or colored pebbles. At least in the crypto situation, however, every participant has access to an open log of the election that can be audited for irregularities.
Power to the People
Blockchain technology offers a way to make the democratic voting process simpler for voters and governments alike. Anonymity and security are maintained above current levels, and most of the hiccups associated with both physical and electronic voting can be quelled via the use of a distributed ledger.
Crypto’s power to disrupt established systems has already been felt in the financial sphere. The governmental sphere will likely be next.