In March-April 2021, the international organization Government Blockchain Association (GBA) held a series of public online discussions on the use of blockchain technology in national voting. The debates voiced the opinions of both opponents and supporters of the technology, as well as “customers-practitioners” — election officials interested in new voting methods.
The idea of using the latest blockchain technology to vote in national elections is increasingly attracting public interest. It is fueled by growing dissatisfaction with the flaws of the traditional paper system, the desire for a more modern and convenient voting tool, and competition among developers to provide such a tool.
However, the proposal to use blockchain in national elections is met with sharp criticism and opposition from security experts. Their opinions and risk reports stop governments around the world from active testing blockchain technologies.
Nevertheless, a number of companies, projects and teams of specialists continue to improve the blockchain voting tools. The technology is also promoted by civil society activists and blockchain enthusiasts from among government officials, and therefore, it is already being applied in practice on a local scale.
The conference participants discussed the advantages and disadvantages of voting on the blockchain using the example of the current US voting system. The meetings were addressed by cybersecurity experts, e-voting experts, and an election official from Utah County, USA, where blockchain has begun to be used for some electoral tasks and procedures.
Voice “Against”: Security Specialists
Critics of blockchain voting include seasoned professionals such as Jeremy Epstein and John Sebes.
Blockchain is an attacker’s dream because once, if everyone goes to blockchain voting, then an attack will be much more scalable for the bad guys, for the attackers than it is for the defenders.
Jeremy Epstein has been in the security industry for over 30 years and is a Program Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF), where he leads the world’s largest cybersecurity research program. He has been a long-time member of Board of Advisors of Verified Voting and has a deep background in election security, and also knows blockchain issues well.
Dr. Epstein argues that blockchain is a good solution for various electoral procedures, but not for voting. This is due to the fact that the data in the blockchain remains unchanged and is not deleted, and if the encryption method turns out to be vulnerable, then the privacy of voters may be violated and the secrecy of the vote will be revealed, if not immediately, then in the long term.
In addition, the expert expresses doubts about Internet voting as such. Among the problems, he mentions the scalability of the attack on the system, as well as the vulnerability of devices from which voters vote. Even if the software related to voting works well, a third-party application can get on the device, which will track the actions of users and know their choice.
…blockchains have three essential features that make them not useful for elections but great for money.
John Sebes has over 30 years of experience in cryptography, cyber, digital and information security and is the Chief Technology Officer at the OSET Institute. Within the organization, he works to build electoral technology. He also works with members of Congress on matters of election security and technology.
John Sebes argues that blockchain, as a distributed digital ledger, was designed to solve the problems of cryptocurrency, and is most suitable for this area. In a public blockchain, anyone can become a member of the network, join the chain, and any user can view the content. But, in his opinion, it looks useless for elections, because ballots are not money. In voting, decentralization as an important feature of the blockchain loses its value, since the officials in charge of elections must have central control in accordance with the law.
The expert sees a solution in the use of a different type of digital ledger, not based on blockchain. He is working on this technology within OSET, developing solutions for the tasks of administration of elections and remote voting. It is intended to be a closed system in the form of a private, non-public distributed database with centralized management and permissions only for the election administration.
Voice “For”: Creators of Blockchain Solutions
Analysts and experts in the field of electronic voting, as well as representatives of blockchain projects and development companies, spoke in favor of the technology. They talked about their experience in developing and applying blockchain for various types of voting and responded to criticism from opponents.
We’ve had 75 elections, we have never been hacked, people have tried… there will always be a threat vector and it’s our job as the implementers, as the practitioners, as the election officials to make sure that we always address the future and known threat factors that exist.
Philippe Andrea is an e-voting expert representing Voatz; a mobile phone app based voting solution with blockchain architecture.
The expert noted that the blockchain guarantees the immutability of the record. You have to change 100% of the records to alter the content. If one server blows up, the other nodes on the network are protected and through the use of digital signatures through the use of hashes, through the use of the chain the record is immutable.
Mr. Andreae believes that if someone decides to attack such a system, then it will be a targeted attack on the user’s device, since it transfers the voter’s intention to the blockchain. Therefore, a system is designed in which three copies, three repositories are created, and auditing provides end-to-end verifiability to confirm that the user’s intent is exactly the same as what is in the other repositories. At the same time, no one in the election commission knows exactly how the citizens voted, they only know that their intention was duly accepted and taken into account, but not what it was.
I think the key concept we want to put there, we all agree that we won’t have a 100% safe solution. And in the first place paper ballot voting is not 100% safe itself and I think there’s a level of risk that the communities are really willing to take.
Gilles Mentré served 10 years in the French government (including 2 years as an advisor to President Sarkozy) and 7 years as managing director at Lazard. Currently he is the President of Electis (France), a non-profit organization promoting next generation e-voting, including blockchain voting. He specializes in the use of blockchains in elections and voting in the professional and academic fields.
The organization that Gilles Mentré represents is developing and experimenting with blockchain voting in small communities. For example, one of the recent projects is a community voting app called Electeez, based on the Tezos blockchain.
Having experience in the practical application of the developed solutions, Gilles Mentré pays attention to user feedback. He gives examples of distrust of people by the remote voting system who ask: “Where is my vote going, where are these numbers, where are they in the end?” While acknowledging the problem, he argues that blockchain is a very promising solution in this regard, as it can be used as the equivalent of a paper trail. Like others in the dialogue, he noted that the immutability of the blockchain ledger opens up opportunities for auditing.
In addition, Mr. Mentré believes that solutions do not have to be completely decentralized on the blockchain, but there may be a centralized solution with a decentralized record at the end which is the one they are using.
We compared different types of voting and did not find a single criterion by which voting on paper alone is better than voting on the blockchain.
The representatives of the decentralized, self-governing online community Free TON — Pavel Prigolovko, Ron Millow and Evgeny Morozov also spoke.
Pavel Prigolovko, TON Labs Chief Strategy Officer, shared the experience of the Free TON community in finding crowdsourcing solutions based on a contest method. He spoke about a series of contests through which a decentralized voting audit system for Latin America is being developed. Once introduced into the auditing process in Guatemala, the Free TON blockchain could become the first decentralized platform to impact the electoral process on a national scale.
In addition, he mentioned another Free TON contest, in which participants challenged the theses of MIT professors presented in an article criticizing blockchain voting. The contestants offered their options for a theoretical and practical solution to the indicated blockchain vulnerabilities and developed models of effective voting.
Pavel Prigolovko brought to the attention of the document, which was drawn up on the basis of a comparison of the blockchain and the paper voting system, both in remote and in-person voting. According to the results of the analysis, it turned out that in both cases the blockchain has more advantages than the paper system.
Voice “For”: Representatives of Election Officials
The third party participating in the discussion represents the views of election officials. Those people who are familiar with the practical side of the electoral system are concerned about its flaws and strive to make the voting process transparent and accessible to all categories of voters.
I am actually the elections official who runs the election so I’m going to be bringing in a dose of reality to the conversation to talk about facts rather than theories.
Amelia Powers Gardner
Amelia Powers Gardner serves as the elected Utah County Clerk and Auditor. In that capacity she is the Chief Elections Officer, overseeing all elections in the county, including logistics, tabulation, and reporting. She has implemented the first election system using blockchain in the United States.
Ms. Powers Gardner explains that during her work during the elections she faced the problem that with the existing method of voting, certain demographic groups (military personnel, disabled people, people in the disaster zone, etc.) do not get access to the procedure, which deprives them of their legal constitutional rights. Declaratively, they have the right to vote and even a prescribed procedure for remote voting, for example, by mail, but in practice they cannot exercise this right.
In search of a solution, the official turned to methods that new technologies offer. After evaluating various proposals from suppliers, a voting system using blockchain was developed. The method was tested in municipal elections for remote voting via mobile devices by individual groups of voters (military personnel who are abroad), as well as for auditing.
Ms. Powers Gardner mentions that there have been many enthusiastic voter reviews saying that they were able to access the vote for the first time or for the first time gaining confidence in privacy (a previous email vote did not provide such confidence). Therefore, in the next elections, specialists repeated this practice, expanding it for voters with disabilities.
Amelia Powers Gardner’s approach echoes the presentation by Susan Eustis, who has extensive experience in researching and forecasting various markets, including elections. Over the years, she has studied how voting works in real conditions, and she draws the attention of the audience to the vulnerability of paper voting and the sheer amount of fraud and manipulation that it allows. The analyst believes that the transition to voting via mobile phones is simply inevitable. Therefore, it is worth focusing not on countering electronic remote voting, but on finding options to ensure the security of such a system.
Our job here is to look at what opportunity is, to look at what challenges are, to be constructive and to think through which the direction is right here.
The participants in the discussion not only presented their positions, but also challenged each other’s arguments, posing difficult questions, the answers to which, perhaps, will gradually appear in the course of the next joint discussions. In addition, the speakers answered questions from the audience, which demonstrated a keen interest in the use of new technologies and the opposition of various concepts and solutions. All this gives reason to believe that such public discussions will continue, involving more and more participants and representatives of various parties.