One of the greatest things about being involved in a decentralised cryptocurrency community is the variety of movers and shakers I’m privileged to meet. After attending the Government Blockchain Association event, Blockchain And Voting (a topic those who have read my previous posts know is a penchant of mine) I was eager to catch a few minutes with one speaker in particular.
Since being sworn into office in 2019, she has been making strides in bringing adoption and awareness of blockchain at a local level, and in doing so, causing ripples in the wider system. Described as “disruptive” and an “innovator”, the impact she has made is undeniable. I’ll let her tell you about her achievements in her own words, but I was a little in awe, to say the least!
Interview with Amelia Powers Gardner
- Hi Amelia, great to meet you! Let’s dive in. You’re infamous for your role in reforming the Utah county elections office, but some may not also know you’re a proponent of blockchain technology. When did you first fall down the crypto rabbit hole?
Great to speak with you too! Well, I have always kind of been aware of crypto and thought it was a little intriguing, but hadn’t really done anything with it. My husband, on the other hand, has always been really interested in crypto. I think he downloaded his first wallet in 2013 so when we got engaged he would bring me along to meetups, random coin meetups, mining meetups, the works. Even when it was his turn for movie night, he would pick Bitcoin documentaries! So I actually went down the rabbit hole properly, I would say, around about 2016/17. In fact, I think I have a picture of me at the Silicon slopes summit attending a blockchain event in 2016 now I think about it!
- I’m sure my other half can empathise with you with all the meetups and documentaries! So how did you first get involved with the Government Blockchain Association (the GBA)?
So yeah, we’d been doing this for several years. I had a really good grasp on the technology well before coming into office, and so I’ve really been looking for ways to implement this technology in the public sector ever since. Elections are actually only one small piece of that. I’ve implemented it in several other places in our practices here in government. You could say I’ve really been a blockchain advocate, almost a blockchain evangelist before my GBA involvement. So, as it happens, I actually stumbled across GBA because I was hosting an event on Blockchain in Government in December 2019, and I was looking for places to advertise my event, and doing a google search their name popped up. I reached out to Gerard, and I said, ‘hey I’d love to be a member and see what you guys have to offer’, and that’s how I got involved.
- Do you see blockchain playing a big part in public sector services in the near future, or is it more of a long-term ambition?
I do see it as more of a long-term thing. I think we’re going to start seeing some adoption in the public sector, but I think it’s really the long game. Whenever you’re dealing with the public sector, or large businesses for that matter, decisions move a lot more slowly than we’d like. There are processes and standards in place which have to be met and adhered to, but we’re getting there.
- In the March 4th GBA blockchain voting seminar you said antagonists of the technology are guilty of not comparing ‘apples with apples’, a phrase I like a lot (in ref to paper vs email vs blockchain), could you elaborate on this?
Absolutely, what’s funny is that they like to compare the technology against this utopian standard that, frankly, doesn’t exist. What’s more helpful, is to actually be comparing it to what we’re doing today. For example, when they say, well we should not allow electronic return of ballot because it’s not secure enough, what they need to compare it to what we’re currently doing, and when it comes to military and oversees members and people with disabilities in the US, more than half of the states allow people to return their ballots electronically. Now, if they’re not using their mobile device, they’re using email, they’re using their Gmail and their Yahoo accounts. So these detractors, they want to compare mobile voting, or blockchain voting, to an absolute standard instead of comparing it to email voting. And the fact of the matter is, in at least half, if not 2/3s of the United States, people are voting with email. So they need to be comparing with that, with what we’re currently doing, not some utopian standard.
- So you’d say they’re looking at the hypothetical, when you’re looking at the reality?
Right, and this makes it difficult for me to take their criticism seriously when they keep comparing it to a hypothetical utopia rather than what I am actually faced with on a day-to-day basis.
Of course, you’re the one working through these realities, which sort of segues this next question up: Speaking from your role, do you think recent world events — COVID-19, the aftermath of the US 2020 elections, for example — have accelerated the need for new technologies to emerge? Not necessarily blockchain…
Absolutely! So what happens in the election world is, typically, you have a major event that acts as the catalyst — and I go back to what I said about the Government not being able to change very quickly — nothing in the election world changes without a catalyst event. So, in the United States, we didn’t go away from punch cards until 2000, and it was the presidential election of George W Bush versus Al Gore, where in Florida we had the hanging chads. All of a sudden, everything went from punch cards, which were the standard, to the electronic voting machines at the polls. That event really caused the switch, and I think we’re seeing the same thing again. We had really a catalyst election, and what that election is demanding transparency, and the only way to really bring that transparency, is going to be through some sort of end-to-end verifiability, and we don’t have that with our current systems. Blockchain could bring that.
- Couldn’t agree with you more, but I’m a little biased! So, you may be aware Free TON recently ran a contest rebutting an MIT paper dismissing the potential for blockchain in voting. Have you had a chance to review the winning entry yet?
I’ve only really glanced, not had a TON of opportunity to look over it yet, but I think it’s really good in a lot of areas! I think I would probably like to see a little more reply from people like election administrators (like myself) that really addresses these apples to apples comparisons like you’re saying. I think that was the one thing that was missing, but I think, in general, it’s a great concept to take the findings of a small group of researchers, and combat that with a large group of individuals that come with very varied opinions and skill sets.
- So, without putting words in your mouth, you’re a fan of the way Free TON are trying to decentralise and crowd source solutions to these issues?
- Aside from elections and voting, you mentioned earlier you believe there are other key areas that crypto and blockchain can infiltrate our day-to-day lives. Where do you see this potential?
Well, I’ve actually implemented a blockchain certification for marriage licenses and marriage certificates. What I’ve done is, when you get married, we deliver an electronic version of your marriage certificate to you, utilising a digital seal. So you know how what makes the paper marriage certificate valid, is the big seal… (Let me show you, I have one right here, cause that’s what I do!)
So you take this big metal thing here, put the paper in it, push down, and it gives you this raised feel. So then you have this paper, with fancy purple ink, and now it’s got this pretty raised seal on it, and that somehow makes this piece of paper special? Well, we’ve done that with a digital copy, a PDF version — and you can see on my certificate here — in the upper corner there is a hash. This hash correlates with this paper, and then the hash is recorded on the Ethereum blockchain.
- Fantastic, so sort of like utilising the Ethereum as a blockchain based notary service?
Yes, very similar! What you have is an analogue real world seal, and we’re putting it into the digital world.
- That’s great, we had a similar thing running on Dune Network prior to our merger with Free TON. I didn’t realise you were doing that!
Yeah, I’m actually doing this today. Every marriage licence we issue here in Utah County — 10,000 last year alone, and we’re on track to do well over that this year — we send you the printed paper copy, and you can frame that on your wall, but we also send them the digital copy which you can utilise anywhere for verification. We’re really cutting edge with this. There are a lot of places where this scares them and they still want a paper copy, but as more places start adopting it, it’ll become more widely accepted. Now, on a side note, we’re doing this here in Utah, but if they were able to do this in the developing world (integrate blockchain into how they issue marriage licences, and birth certificates etc), then, for example, say there is a coupe that takes over a government, or a war that tears that government apart, the people, the refugees, would have a way to access their identities.
- Indeed, the potential for this is huge as you say! I’m no expert (far from it!) but I’ve heard about many issues with death registries which could fall into this area. So, I know you’re very busy, of course, just a couple more quick questions for you. Silly one, crypto enthusiasts love their bitcoin price predictions. Do you have one for us?
I’ve heard several people say this, and I tend to agree, we’ll see six figures before the year is out, so yeah, I think at least a hundred thousand by the end of this year.
- You’ll win yourself a lot of fans in the community with statements like that! So, just finally, anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, I’d just like to end with saying sometimes it’s harder to make a change at a big, national level. But the more people that introduce these things to your elected officials, the more we focus at a local level, and the more people that adopt it (like myself), the more we can use these as a pattern and an example. Then we’ll see these solutions become the broader option.
Another very motivated man I’ve had the recent fortune to talk to is Gerard Dache, Executive Director of the Government Blockchain Association. We had an in-depth conversation about the work they’re doing to enable public sector and Government bodies to adapt and evolve with blockchain and crypto.
Until then, why not seek out your local represented officials, and ask them their thoughts on blockchain-based initiatives?