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No, blockchain isn't the answer to our voting system woes

But the distributed, data-protecting storage technology already is being used in the midterm elections.

Voatz mobile-phone blockchain voting
Startup Voatz uses blockchain technology to record votes that overseas citizens and military personnel can make with their smartphones.
West Virginia Secretary of State; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

In principle, blockchain technology sounds like a great solution to today's voting system problems. It offers a way to resist data tampering, creates a foundation to enable voting by phone and can generate an instant audit to verify election results.

Blockchain fans think the technology is useful for everything from rendering movie special effects to selling concert tickets. So of course blockchain voting tech is also under way.

Startups including Votem, Voatz, Follow My Vote, Boulé, Democracy Earth and Agora are developing and promoting blockchain-based voting systems. They think blockchain, a system for securely sharing a database of records across a network of computers, could be as big a deal in voting as advocates expect it to be in shipping, money transfers, property records, and the job it was invented for, recording transactions with cryptocurrency like bitcoin.

Or maybe not.

"We range from being skeptical to being very skeptical about it," said Maurice Turner, senior technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit that tries to ease problems at the intersection of society and the internet.

Blockchain-based voting systems may someday be the norm. But for now, with worries about electronic voting vulnerabilities and even technophiles recommending paper-based ballot systems, any new digital voting option must prove itself.

Now playing: Watch this: What the heck is blockchain?

And that's a bit harder at the moment for blockchain. The enthusiasm for it that accompanied 2017's cryptocurrency craze has waned, and blockchain skeptics are willing to speak out against the hype. On top of that, blockchain has been tarnished by the difficulties of distinguishing startup startups' legitimate initial coin offering fundraising efforts from scams. Even without reputation problems, blockchain voting has a long way to go before earning trust.

"No matter how much it might seem at first like it's 'perfect' for it, civil voting just isn't a good application for blockchain," tweeted Matt Blaze, a University of Pennsylvania computer science and cryptography professor and expert on electronic voting security.

Blockchain's voting promise

Not everyone is so pessimistic. "Mobile voting using a safe and tested interface could eliminate voter fraud and boost turnout," a report from the Brookings Institution think tank concluded in May. "It is also a beneficial tool for the election commission to maintain transparency in the electoral process, minimize the cost of conducting elections, streamline the process of counting votes and ensure that all votes are counted."

Voatz and Votem both point to a few potential advantages of blockchain voting technology:

  • Voters can verify that their vote was cast as intended and detect tampering.
  • Governments and independent outside parties can confirm the vote results stored on the blockchain for better election transparency.
  • With decentralized blockchain databases, in which voting data is distributed across many servers, it's harder to destroy or alter results by hacking a single central system.

"Blockchain tools could serve as a foundational infrastructure for casting, tracking, and counting votes -- potentially eliminating the need for recounts by taking voter fraud and foul play off the table," said an August report from tech analyst firm CB Insights

Blockchain voting is real

Blockchain voting startups are working hard to overcome the skepticism. Their technology is being used in the real world -- elections for political parties, unions, universities, even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The most notable case is Voatz, whose blockchain-based voting system is being used in West Virginia as an option for overseas voters, including ordinary citizens and military personnel who could use their phones to place their vote with the system. Two of the state's 55 counties tried it during the 2018 primary election, and only 13 people actually used it to vote, said Chief Executive Nimit Sawhney. In the midterm election, 24 counties offered it as an option.

"We have to go through baby steps to make sure the technology is as bulletproof as can make it," Sawhney said. "Our goal is to expand this into other states," many of which have the same voter turnout problems that stem from the hassles and missed deadlines that come with getting paper ballots, he said. Voatz plans to expand to other countries and to other groups that have trouble with today's voting technology, such as people with disabilities.

West Virginia has carefully scrutinized the security of Voatz technology, including its phone and back-end server software, and believes it can help people vote even if they're in a submarine or in a remote military post in Afghanistan. "We're doing everything we can to give our uniformed services members and overseas citizens the same ease of access to a ballot that we get stateside," said Donald "Deak" Kersey, West Virginia's elections officer.

A rival, Votem, also is proceeding cautiously. It's working on obtaining US Election Assistance Commission certification. "I think by 2020 we'll be piloting it in more scenarios," said Operations Manager Jeffrey Stern.

Stern and Sawhney both emphasize that the blockchain technology is used only to store the vote data and that it's essential to incorporate other technology, such as that for verifying a voter's identity using face recognition and a government ID. And at least for now, their technology is just an option, not the only way people can vote.

And even if blockchain isn't perfect, neither is the current voting technology it challenges. For example, the only proof of identification Montana and Ohio require for absentee voting is that voters write the last four digits of their Social Security number on the ballot, Stern said. Audits of elections are slow, expensive and often limited just to close races. And good luck to individual voters finding out if their votes were tallied correctly.

But there are downsides

Skeptics are abundant, though -- even among the digitally savvy.

Princeton cryptography professor Matthew Green has a list of concerns about blockchain voting technology, the first being that it relies on computers in the first place. Blockchain voting also brings new twists to the age-old problem of voter coercion: "If I can verify that my vote was correctly recorded, then your local mob boss can also use my receipt to verify the same thing," and thus can exert pressure to vote a particular way.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine -- a prestigious group of top researchers in the US -- also said no to blockchain voting in a September report on voting technology.

"While the notion of using a blockchain as an immutable ballot box may seem promising, blockchain technology does little to solve the fundamental security issues of elections, and indeed, blockchains introduce additional security vulnerabilities," the report said. "In particular, if malware on a voter's device alters a vote before it ever reaches a blockchain, the immutability of the blockchain fails to provide the desired integrity, and the voter may never know of the alteration."

With Voatz' technology, only voters know who they voted for, Sawhney said. And Votem's Stern believes there are profound problems with today's non-digital voting systems that must be weighed in the balance. "You can't forgo how disenfranchised people are from that process -- how many people paper precludes from participating," he said.

That's a fair point. Blockchain may or may not play a role, but voting will move to our internet-connected devices, said Turner of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"We now have voters coming of age used to having most interactions with products or services done digitally. There will be that pressure coming from voters themselves," Turner said. "We're only 10 or 20 years to go where voters expect to be able to vote digitally."

Election security: Everything you need to know about election security in the 2018 US midterm elections.

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