The 21st-century way to vote

A cornerstone of American democracy is faith in elections to deliver a fair result. Today, that trust is under threat...

Posted: Jul 26, 2018 5:13 PM
Updated: Jul 26, 2018 5:13 PM

A cornerstone of American democracy is faith in elections to deliver a fair result. Today, that trust is under threat. Most recently, 12 Russian agents were indicted over interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

How do we ensure Americans' belief in the vote?

One option is to put votes on a blockchain, which is a kind of record keeping. Blockchain's most famous application is bitcoin, the digital currency. Bitcoin transactions are recorded on a blockchain, or distributed ledger, that is verified by computers around the world. The bitcoin blockchain allows money to travel around the globe without the help of a bank or a government. The cryptography behind blockchain makes it difficult to tamper with it without someone noticing. This is why some refer to blockchain as a "truth machine."

Blockchain is now being applied to everything from humanitarian aid to supply chains -- and many industries that want a record that resists the interference of a third party.

In May, West Virginia became the first state to use blockchain in a federal election. A limited number of absentee military, or Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, voters used a blockchain-based mobile application. This was intended to be safer and more convenient than mailing in an absentee paper ballot.

"Whether a Soldier is without mail service in the mountains of Afghanistan, or a Sailor is in a submarine under the polar icecap, they deserve the opportunity to participate easily in our democracy," said West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican.

Blockchain was an attempt to keep those mobile votes secure. Absentee voters cast their ballots via their smartphones, and then their votes were recorded on a blockchain -- in addition to a traditional cast vote record. The results of the vote are still under audit, but if all goes well, in the midterm elections, West Virginia will bring blockchain voting to UOCAVA voters in the state's 55 counties.

"Blockchain is becoming more and more attractive for people who are looking for a transparent and immutable record -- that is something that can be audited," Donald Kersey, elections director and deputy legal counsel at the West Virginia secretary of state's office, told me. Kersey said there wasn't much opposition to the pilot, in part because it was so limited in size. West Virginia has not publicized exactly how many voters participated in the pilot, but Kersey acknowledged it was not a large number.

Kersey noted that in West Virginia, all voting machines have a backup paper record, or a "voter verified paper trail," as do many other states. "For those that don't," he said, "I doubt blockchain is the best answer -- mainly because it would require connection to the internet." So, while blockchain might help mobile voting become more secure, Kersey doesn't foresee blockchain becoming part of the voting machine discussion anytime soon.

If West Virginia extends blockchain voting to UOCAVA voters in all 55 counties, the pushback could increase. "There are always concerns about the unknown," Kersey said. "The word 'pioneer' is most applicable here. Lewis and Clark had no idea what was west of the Mississippi."

As for the voters themselves, many probably didn't even know that the system used blockchain. While I was not able to get direct access to the voters who participated in the pilot, some appeared to appreciate the convenience. "I've been living in Japan for 17 years, and I've missed a lot of stuff stateside," one person who successfully voted told Voatz, the startup that worked on the West Virginia blockchain pilot. "This system gives me an opportunity to engage again with so much ease."

Blockchain technology appeals to those who trust math more than human beings. Nimit Sawhney, CEO of Voatz, explains that for a computer to add any data to the blockchain, it has to first solve a difficult puzzle. The puzzle is hard to solve, but easy for other people to check. "You can't cheat math," he told me. "One plus one is two."

In a blockchain, every block is mathematically linked to the one before it. "Let's say you found a way to tamper with the most recent transaction," Sawhney said. "You have to tamper with everything before it, and remain undetected, before the next vote comes in. You would need to do it in a fraction of a second." This would make it very difficult for Russians, for example, to hack a blockchain. "Even with the most powerful computer they have, it would take 25 years to hack one vote."

In the case of West Virginia, military voters first verified their identity via government-issued IDs and face recognition. They cast their votes via Android or iPhones, and then those votes were stored on a blockchain.

The West Virginia blockchain did not use bitcoin or any cryptocurrency. Unlike bitcoin, which is decentralized and open to everyone, in West Virginia only nodes with permission could participate. Nodes are computers that cryptographically verify updates to a blockchain.

Sawhney says that in the very near future, stakeholders, such as voters, independent auditors, nongovernmental organizations and all major political parties can apply to become a node. While some will still criticize this kind of blockchain for not being fully decentralized, having multiple political parties verifying the blockchain might help assuage fears that one party will unduly influence the process.

Sound too good to be true? Some think it is. "How do you know that the votes you put on the keyboard of your phone get on the blockchain?" asked Stanford University computer science professor David Dill.

By involving Android or Apple phones, you are giving Silicon Valley companies even more power than they already have. "Suppose there's a group of programmers at Google. They have strong opinions about who should be elected for office, and no scruples," Dill told me. "I don't want Apple to decide who the president is. I don't want Google to decide who the president is." Many Americans don't trust the government, but some trust Silicon Valley even less.

Josh Benaloh, a senior cryptographer at Microsoft Research, echoed Dill's concern. "If my vote is changed by malware before it ever reaches a blockchain, I will likely never know it, and the blockchain offers me no protection."

Pete Martin, CEO of Votem, a blockchain voting startup that is exploring the possibility of doing midterm elections in Montana, told me that it has already accounted for this problem. "We assume you have malware on your phone or desktop," Martin said. "When you cast your vote, that cast vote record has a mathematical proof around this encrypted package. By the time that our servers get it, we check to see if anything was changed in that packet. ... If it was changed, we'll reject your vote."

It's good that people are raising questions about blockchain. If states apply it to something as critical as elections, they'd better get it right. But it's clear that something must be done. Perception matters. If Americans lose faith in elections, democracy will suffer.

Everyone in the elections world wants what's best for the voter and the votes, Kersey said. "Whether you're Republican or Democrat, it doesn't matter. I don't think that anybody is going to put a wall up against something that works, that is secure."

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