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Will blockchain beat the polls?

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In October, Greenland was reported to be exploring the feasibility of an online voting platform for its national elections. Among the options being considered is a blockchain-based system.

This is not entirely surprising. Electronic voting or e-voting has long been seen as a promising use case for blockchain technology. Time to vote online. Wrote Alex Tapscott in a New York Times op-ed in 2018. “Using blockchain technology, online voting can boost voter participation and help restore public confidence in the electoral process and democracy.”

Now seems a particularly good time because large segments of the world’s population are raising questions about the integrity of elections — most notably in the United States, but in other countries as well, such as Brazil.

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Tim Goggin, CEO at Horizon State, for example, believes that blockchain-enabled elections are a “huge improvement” over the way most elections are run today. Voting machines break down, software fails, and electoral irregularities often create uncertainty and suspicion among the electorate.

With a public blockchain, by comparison, “it’s much easier for voters to track their vote,” Goggin told Cointelegraph, “and audit the election themselves.”

Moreover, if something untoward happens in the voting process, it is easier to identify it in a decentralized ledger containing thousands of nodes than in current scheduling systems “where the counting takes place behind closed doors,” says Goggin, whose company created public elections south. Australia in 2019, the first time that blockchain technology was used in the voting process for that Australian state.

However, the potential of blockchain technology in the face of the general election has been highlighted for some time now. There is no country that has not yet used blockchain technology in national elections.

Marta Pekarska, chief DAO strategist at ConsenSys, recalls working at Hyperledger in 2016, where blockchain voting was discussed as a promising use case. “Six years later, and we’re still talking about this,” she told Cointelegraph. “We’re still very far from a situation where any kind of distributed ledger will be considered” — at least in national elections.

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She further explained that a few countries, notably Estonia, are experimenting with systems that allow people to vote online. On the other hand, “the Netherlands abandoned the idea of ​​conducting electronic voting due to some concerns regarding the security and reliability of the votes.”

Then there is sparsely populated Greenland, where the vast distances make it difficult for people to vote in person. A group of researchers from Concordium Blockchain, Aarhus University, Alexandra Institute and the University of Information Technology will investigate “whether a blockchain-based system would be more reliable in electronic elections on the world’s largest island” depending For the Concordium press release.

Ensuring trust is crucial

Any system requires a vote of confidence, and trust requires a number of characteristics — any of which can be challenging depending on the circumstances, Kåre Kjelstrøm, Concordium’s chief technology officer, told Cointelegraph. For in-person voting, these include: Whitelisting: ensuring that only eligible voters participate; Identification: Voters need to prove their identity when casting their ballots; Anonymity: Votes are cast in private and cannot be returned to the voter; Security: The sites are secured by the government; Immutability: Votes cast cannot be changed.

“Any digital system that replaces manual voting needs to address at least those same issues to ensure trust, and this has proven to be somewhat difficult,” Kjellstrom said. “But blockchain may prove to be part of the solution.”

A decentralized public blockchain guarantees immutability by default, after all, “in that any written transaction can never be deleted.” Kjellstrom said:

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The trick is to maintain privacy and anonymity while ensuring that any eligible voter can only cast a ballot once. […] This is a topic of current research in top institutions.

Authorized or public chains?

“The main problems I see for general elections as opposed to corporate governance is that you can’t be there without permission [blockchain] The system because voter information is private and we can’t trust all third parties, Amrita Dillon, professor of economics in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London, told Cointelegraph.

“The second problem is the introduction of voting at a place chosen by voters: we cannot prevent anyone from coercing voters at the point where they submit electronic voting,” she added.

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Others say that licensed chains are not the answer because they are run by a single entity or group of entities that exercise complete control over the system. “Worst case this means that a private blockchain can be manipulated by these same custodians and elections rigged,” said Kjelstrom. This is not a big problem in Western countries, “but it is not true in large parts of the world.”

On the other hand, if one can “weave a self-sovereign identity (SSI) into the underlying protocol,” as Concordium, a layer-one public blockchain, aspires to do, “it might just be the right technology to run general elections,” said Killstrom.

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However, Goggin noted that many governments are likely to choose to use private blockchains in line with their privacy/data laws, and there are many ways to set up authorized blockchains. But, if they do not provide the public with at least an auditable trace of voting records, they are unlikely to bolster public faith in the fairness of elections. He calls himself a “big fan” of public and distributed blockchain.

The question of privacy is particularly complex when it comes to the general election. “You shouldn’t be able to tell which candidate someone voted for, or even if they voted at all,” Wrote Vitalik Buterin in a blog titled “Blockchain is overvoted among uninformed people but undervalued among knowledgeable people.” On the one hand, you want to ensure – and if necessary prove – that only eligible voters voted, so some information such as addresses and citizen status may need to be collected. Buterin saw encryption as a way around the privacy dilemma.

Goujin suggests something similar. Horizon State may require the customer to “hash,” that is, encrypt or scramble eligible voter identities “before providing them to us, and then we hash those identities again.” This means that neither the customer nor Horizon State can easily determine who or how to vote. he added:

“Voters will be able to see their vote on the chain, but there is no way for voters to prove that it was their vote, since they can see other votes on the blockchain as well.”

Dillon, for her part, suggests a compromise where “some parts of the process are centralized”, i.e. voters come to a booth where they are verified and submit their votes, “but decentralization can be applied to later parts of the chain for a more secure and tamper-proof procedure”.

Technical limitations?

In 2014, the online voting platform Active Citizen was created in Moscow to allow Muscovites to voice their opinion on non-political municipal decisions, and in 2017 it used the Ethereum blockchain for a series of polls. The largest of these are 220,000 citizens and the results of the vote were open to public scrutiny. revealed some measurement limitations.

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The PoW-based platform peaked at around 1,000 transactions per minute [16.7 transactions per second]. This means that it will not be easy for the platform to handle the volume if a higher proportion of Moscow’s 12 million citizens turn out to vote,” according to Nir Kshetri, a professor at the Bryan School of Business and Economics at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. With that in mind, Kshetri and others concluded that the PoW version of the Ethereum blockchain “wasn’t sufficient to handle national elections.”

However, things may be different in 2023, when Ethereum 2.0 will implement hashing. This could speed up the chain to as much as 100,000 TPS, which in turn “increases the attractiveness of the Ethereum blockchain for voting,” he told Cointelegraph.

But perhaps the blockchain still needs to be more secure before it is ready for general elections, although this is manageable in Kshetri’s view. “Blockchains are likely to become more secure as they mature.”

Buterin also said in 2021 that security continues to be an issue in the face of elections. For this reason, “in the short term, any form of voting via blockchain should remain confined to small trials. […] Security at the moment is definitely not good enough to rely on computers for everything.”

Online transactions, unlike manual systems, “can happen in the blink of an eye,” Killstrom added, and software-based attacks on an electronic voting system can “thwart or damage the system or the vote.” Therefore, “any new system must be introduced slowly to ensure that the voting system remains sound and fully functional”. He said governments might start small and do proof-of-concepts to choose non-critical elections first.

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Ease of use is crucial

Technology is not the only hurdle that needs to be resolved before blockchain voting can gain widespread adoption. There are also political and social challenges.

“The technology is there,” Pekarska said. “We can do that now. I mean, decentralized autonomous organizations are being run through online voting now, and they’re running trillions of dollars.” But national elections are a different beast, as you suggested, because:

“On a government level, your problem is: How do you create a system that citizens can use?”

One’s constituency isn’t tech-savvy members of the DAO, Pekarska added, “but people like my mom, who still struggles with online banking.”

How long will it last, then, before the first national elections with blockchain voting? “I hope there are no contracts, but we’re definitely not there yet,” said Kjelstrom.

“It could be tomorrow or it could be in 50 or 60 years,” Piekarska said, “because there are so many things that need to align.” In Europe, most people trust their governments and voting quality is not a real issue, so the pressure on cryptographically auditable ledgers may not be so urgent. In countries with weaker governance where elections are often rigged, on the contrary, why would the authorities approve blockchain voting without rigging?

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Greenland, which is struggling to participate in its general elections mainly because of the vast distances its citizens must travel to vote, may be an exception.

“Yes, some powerful governments want to do the right thing but they struggle with access to in-person voting,” Pekarska acknowledged. Perhaps this is where we might see early movers because there is a great incentive for them to do so. But these are unique situations.”

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In general, it is critical that people trust their voting system, whether it be manual, electronic or blockchain-based, and building trust can take some time. But, as more people become accustomed to accessing public services over the internet, e-voting should take on a larger profile in different parts of the world, and once that happens, voting could travel over the blockchain, due to its well-documented advantages, allowing individuals to audit their own accounts. . sounds.

Large-scale blockchain-enabled national elections may still be a few years away. However, Goggin has been engaged in discussions recently “about providing for an election of this magnitude,” adding:

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“While this is not yet the norm, governments are starting to look at the value that online blockchain voting systems can provide in terms of efficiency, accessibility, speed, security, and transparency.”