April 30, 2021
Trusted and accurate elections, as perceived by citizens, are the bedrock of democratic legitimacy. For many, the word “democracy” is synonymous with voting. They are massive undertakings: voting, counting, and results tabulation need to be conducted rapidly, transparently and with very narrow margins for error. They are also uniquely vulnerable to disinformation. As seen in the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, even the perception of an unfair election is sufficient to delegitimize candidates at the end of a fair election. Since blockchain technology can safeguard data from tampering in a transparent way, could this technology strengthen free and fair elections?
In this final blog post in our Building Trust in Democracy series, we will explore the various ways blockchain technology might help democracies conduct effective elections (make sure to check out the first and second blog too). Given the particular sensitivity of election administration, we conclude with a few special considerations to help election officials understand the risks of integrating new technologies into elections.
Voter Registration Data Security
Voter accessibility challenges are not just confined to physical obstacles. Malicious actors can also obstruct voters from election participation by manipulating voter registration information, undermining the legitimacy and trust in an electoral outcome.
- Blockchain could play an important role in securing the voter registry. Citizens and authorized government officials could update voter records in a more secure manner, as a blockchain creates by its nature an audit trail of changes, including information on what account made the change and when.
- Independent watch-dogs could track the edits being made to voter records on a blockchain in real time, watching for purges or suspicious activities.
Secured In-Person and Mail-In Voting
In some cases, citizens may be concerned about their ballot being altered, discarded, or replaced after they cast their votes either in-person or via the mail.
- Electronic voting technologies backed the security properties of blockchain can be used to reduce the risk of votes being manipulated after being cast and before being tabulated.
- In such a system, voters cast ballots in polling stations using electronic voting machines, which records the data onto a blockchain and provides a voter with a paper receipt of their vote for auditing purposes.
- Voters then have the ability to verify that their ballot was cast according to their vote. It also provides a way for independent monitors to verify whether the tally of individual votes matches official results.
Blockchain-based Mobile Voting
Online voting is a controversial subject which has generated as much enthusiasm as it has scorn and ridicule. However, large segments of voters, such as those living in remote areas, expatriates, people with physical disabilities and other marginalized communities, can face obstacles to voting in person and already vote remotely. Mobile device voting holds the potential to increase participation in the electoral process.
- Blockchain could secure data in the voting process. Voters who cast ballots on connected devices have votes recorded and anonymized on the blockchain, which records which candidate received the vote.
- This method helps with auditability: voters can potentially verify that their ballot has been cast and recorded accurately, and election monitors can verify whether the tally of individual votes matches the official results.
- Such a blockchain-based system holds the potential for an auditable solution that is superior to many other distance voting methods currently used, including mail-in ballots, faxes and even emails, ensuring the integrity of information transmitted to the election administrators.
- However, as with any digital technology, electronic voting may exclude certain groups of voters, such as the elderly, illiterate, rural, or low-income voters, who may be intimidated by new technologies or have limited access to internet-connected devices.
Mobile voters must be confident that their choices will not be changed or lost due to cybersecurity threats like computer viruses or hacking. Developing software using open source principles generally results in more secure code thanks to collaborative and independent security experts who scan for vulnerabilities and directly fix bugs. Insecure or faulty software can undermine the voting process, the legitimacy of the vote, and importantly the perception of a fair and honest election process that jeopardizes this fundamental political institution.
Polling Station Results Transmission
Historically, threats to election integrity appear most often in the counting and aggregation of vote totals at the regional or national level, not the individual polling stations. Blockchain may play a useful role in securing the transmission of vote totals from the individual low-level polling station to higher level tabulation centers, raising the bar to corruption by making it necessary to manipulate the process at a large number of individual polling stations rather than one center.
- Blockchain could also facilitate transmission of station-level results totals for each candidate with ballot reconciliation data so election officials could later verify official results with the poll station inputs.
- Any legitimate revision of poll-level results would be traceable thanks to blockchain audit trails that track who made revisions, when they occurred, and for what reason, so they could be independently verified by monitors.
Independent Monitoring of Blockchain-Validated Elections
Independent monitoring bolsters the legitimacy of election results by incorporating unbiased observation of election processes and ensuring that stakeholder in elections cannot subvert fair competition. Election observation groups, political parties, and the media can and should play a critical role in pushing for election technology implementations that are secure and independently auditable.
- Blockchain offers new opportunities for independent monitors to observe election results in real-time. Nonpartisan election observation groups with access and technical skills would be able to monitor polling station result transmission, audit changes to voter file records, or even observe the process of individual votes.
- Election observation groups themselves should receive support from the election authorities and technical experts to help them learn how to monitor this new public space.
Special Concerns with New Technology in the Election Process
Elections are high-stakes activities with little room for error, or ability for correction after the fact. Risks to election integrity are magnified with the introduction of a new technology. To reinforce the validity and legitimacy of elections, some safeguards must be observed:
- Public education efforts must precede new technology implementations. The public needs to understand how a new system works, be able to observe it operating correctly, and trust that it will not cause an election to fail or be manipulated. Prudent introduction of new technologies in elections can take years, not months.
- High-capacity, non-partisan, and reputable election administrators must oversee new election technology implementations. Poor implementation of new systems can – as many elections have shown – undermine public confidence and subvert the legitimacy of the winner. Losers at the ballot box often attack the system by blaming technology.
- Election authorities must consult with key stakeholders to define the advantages and risks posed by a new technology. All political factions, civil society leaders, members of marginalized communities, and other constituent groups should perceive the new technology as fair among different constituent groups. Transparent and competitive technology procurement processes are particularly critical in an election context where even the perception of illegitimacy could undermine confidence in elections.
Where do we go from here?
Throughout this blog series, we have outlined core components of a successful blockchain technology pilot and examples of how blockchain could serve as effective tools to strengthen democracies. Whether for improving transparency and accountability of core government functions, electoral access and integrity, or civil society engagement, blockchain technology may serve an important role in the digital transformation of democratic societies, strengthening accountability between citizens and government while bolstering inclusion in public decision-making. Trust in data reinforces trust in institutions.
So why haven’t we seen broad proliferation of this technology into public services? Well-intentioned novel technologies are difficult to implement, and given the core importance of democratic institutions to our society, the stakes are high. Slow, steady, and isolated pilots of this new technology will not only help leaders implement it correctly and successfully, but will give the public time to learn about this technology and perhaps gain familiarity and trust. As the end of the pandemic comes into view, democracy advocates have an enormous opportunity to redesign government service delivery institutions to be as effective, efficient, and equitable as possible, proving to people around the world that democracies can deliver better for their people – while demonstrating that new tools can preserve their rights and empower their voices.
Special thanks and contributors: Kristi Arbogast, Asvatha Babu, Priyal Bhatt, Jen Brody, Julia Brothers, Michael McNulty, Sarah Moulton, Julia Rhodes, Allison Price, Saiph Savage, Elizabeth Sutterlin, Tomicah Tillemann, and Moira Whelan.