I know you don’t want to hear about how blockchain technology can fix elections, solve cold fusion, restore trust to America, bring global peace, and invent a new way to slice bread.
I’m pretty tired of the blockchain hype cycle too.
But if there’s one thing that proves current election technology is essentially trash, it’s the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Days later, we still don’t know for sure who won or lost, there are allegations about fraud or miscounts, and multiple legal challenges to the results already. Baseless or not, our current election process and technology invites challenge and provides fodder for conspiracy theories.
Can digital voting fix this? Can blockchain help?
Well, it could hardly be worse.
“Trust compounds incrementally over time, very slowly, but it’s lost instantly,” Tim Goggin, CEO of Australian election tech company Horizon State told me in a recent TechFirst podcast. “In an event like this you need to start looking at new solutions to start rebuilding that relationship between the people being governed and the people that are doing the governing.”
Horizon State builds blockchain-based election technology that an Australian regional government has actually used in an election, so it’s not your typical blockchain vaporware. In addition, the company was selected as a World Economic Forum technology pioneer.
According to Goggin there are at least four things required for visible and transparent election success.
Accessibility is critical, especially during a pandemic. While mail is typically the cutting edge of election tech right now, it’s unreliable. People move. They’re on vacation. Mail isn’t tracked and traced. It gets delivered to the wrong address by mistake.
One the other hand, the internet is what’s most accessible for the most people.
Authentication is also critical. Mailed ballots are sometimes required to be signed by a third party, but not in all districts. Even if that’s done, what is to prevent fraud in this circumstance? Ballots cast in-person require identification, but election officials often spend as much time scrutinizing ID as a bouncer at a club.
Listen to the interview behind this story on the TechFirst podcast:
Security is a must, and although there is no such thing as perfect security in technology-based systems, when coupled with transparency and mutiply-redundant systems of record, you have accountability that is obvious.
As much as blockchain is probably not a perfect solution for everything that it’s been touted for, this sounds right up blockchain’s alley. Theoretically, anyone can check the votes in a blockchain-based system, and audit any that look suspicious.
There’s also permanence and resistance to hacking the results. Blockchain ensures that voting data can’t be altered to suit one candidate or another.
“Once information is put onto a blockchain, it is extremely difficult or impossible to change afterwards,” Goggin says. “Imagine I walk into a restaurant … and I scream really, really loudly: ‘My name is Tim.’ I walk off and then someone else walks in five minutes later and they go, ‘I heard some guy yelling before — what did he say?’ And let’s say someone — lying — says ‘His name is Simon.’ You’re going to have 29 other people in that room. They’re going to go ‘No, no. He said his name was Tim.’”
“And if that person walked around the room, talked to everyone there, they’re going to be pretty sure that the name was Tim and not Simon … blockchains are essentially a database that is very hard to change and they are a way of agreeing on what the real state of history actually is.”
Of course, getting from here — paper ballots, mail, and physical pieces of ID — to a future digital voting state is easier said than done.
Secure digital ID is required, which many governments like Australia, New Zealand, are working on. Sweden has a digital ID initiative, as does Argentina. Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and other countries have initiatives ongoing or solutions already launched, such as the e-KTP in Indonesia, which has been in existence since 2011. Individual U.S states are also working on identity technology including Oklahoma, often working with Real ID, which is Homeland Security’s identification protocol.
Ultimately, the goal is that one day, everyone can cast their vote, have it immediately and accurately registered and tabulated, and anyone who has any concern about the reliability of any election can analyze every vote in almost real time.
There are some challenges, of course.
“Governments are often really slow to make changes,” says Goggin. “So it’s just like very large enterprises.”
To those who say digital voting is risky and we can’t take the risk of making a mistake, Goggin has a fairly immediate comeback focusing on this current U.S. election.
“You’ve got a big one right there that could have been dealt with a lot better. We might be seeing more of these scenarios … more and more of the everyday people are probably going to start saying to elected officials: we need to start looking at a new solution, a new way of doing this.”
I won’t hold my breath. But perhaps in another decade or two long, drawn-out and disputed elections might be a thing of the past.