How the technology behind Bitcoin can save our elections

Bitcoin has been dismissed as an anarcho-capitalist fantasy, but its underlying tech could enable secure e-voting

Published July 23, 2017 9:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Mark Lennihan)
(AP/Mark Lennihan)

You can be forgiven for thinking of Bitcoin, the best-known cryptocurrency, as the realm of thieves, Wall Street bankers and libertarian techies who’ve drunk too much Soylent. Despite recently intensified media interest, trading Bitcoin is not a particularly accessible hobby to folks outside the finance or tech worlds. So it’s healthy to be skeptical about Bitcoin’s promise, beyond its utility as a speculative investment or a means of laundering money or buying black market drugs.

All that could change as the technology matures. Indeed, there is evidence that the technologies underlying cryptocurrencies  — what are called “blockchain protocols” — have potential uses beyond peer-to-peer payment systems. One of the most exciting possibilities is the potential to use Bitcoin’s underlying technology to improve our system of voting. It’s called "blockchain voting," and it has some voting experts and security researchers convinced we can bolster our democracy with a secure, transparent and auditable way for citizens to vote from their smart phones.

How it works

First, some background. Bitcoin is built on a type of distributed ledger technology called a blockchain protocol, or blockchain for short. Quite simply, a blockchain is a type of distributed database for recording all of the activity on a network. If Bob pays Alice five bitcoins, that transaction is broadcast to and confirmed by the network. When a majority of the nodes in the network confirm the validity of the transaction, it is settled and recorded on the blockchain.

Each block in the blockchain refers to the most recent set of transactions confirmed on the network. Moreover, each block in the blockchain contains a reference to the previous set of transactions confirmed. In this sense, the entire blockchain is immutable, meaning it cannot be changed retroactively. Thus, it is very hard to counterfeit or "double spend" because the network has to achieve consensus about the accuracy of the blockchain.

In broad strokes, blockchains allow the transfer of value across networks in a transparent and secure way. As a cryptocurrency, Bitcoin’s blockchain is designed to record transactions: payments between third parties using bitcoins. Yet, blockchains themselves could be used to record other things as well: car titles, stocks, gambling debts, and shareholder votes among them. The next wave of blockchain development is focused on the sale and transfer of other types of digital assets, which could rewrite the way people exchange goods and services. Some people are so excited about blockchain’s potential they think it signals the emergence of Web 3.0.

While much of blockchain development is focused on finance, stock trading, cybersecurity and supply chain management, there is some interest in blockchain applications in government. Lawmakers, activists and policy wonks seem to project their own partisan fantasies onto the nascent technology. There is even a Congressional Blockchain Caucus that has garnered bipartisan support. For Republicans, migrating administration and record-keeping to digital ledgers could precipitate the shedding of layers of government bureaucracy.

Blockchain evangelists, like writer and business strategist Don Tapscott, envision fully automated DMVs where all registrations, renewals and permits are recorded on blockchains with self-service stations akin to self-checkout in the grocery store. Admittedly, this comes off as a bit simplistic. We should not discount the expertise, judgment and value of bureaucrats in favor of an elegant piece of computer code that can’t really replicate the work real human beings perform. But for most who favor blockchains over bureaucrats, these are just messy details and most conservatives would gladly throw their weight behind a blockchain or any Rube Goldberg machine that allows the privatization of public services.

For Democrats, blockchain represents an opportunity to give citizens more control over government records, privacy and information security. It could also expand payment services to the unbanked. It may even be an alternative pathway for financing local municipal banks. Even though a federal judge put the brakes on President Trump’s executive order to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities, what would happen if the injunction was lifted and Trump withheld funds from California? Could the state issue its own local currency on a blockchain to make up for the loss in federal funding? Constitutionally, no. But for now, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are in murky legal waters; it’s unclear whether the federal government even sees cryptocurrencies as currencies at all. All of which is to suggest that there are some intriguing possibilities with blockchain technology that have garnered bipartisan support from elected officials. Which is why one of the most promising blockchain applications for government involves voting.

Blockchain voting

Online voting has been a vexing problem for election officials for years. It seems like voting online could have the potential to make voting easier and more accessible, a noble pursuit for any democracy; and yet, most existing online voting systems are vulnerable to tampering. While blockchains have their own security vulnerabilities, there are a number of features that make a blockchain a very attractive way to record votes. In the same way that blockchains record transfers of digital assets like Bitcoin, blockchains can record the transfer of a voting token to a particular candidate or issue position, so the theory goes. Nasdaq has already successfully completed a blockchain voting test in Estonia to allow proxy voting on a stock exchange.  

There are a number of advantages built into a blockchain voting system. Arguably the greatest strength of a blockchain voting system is that people can vote from their mobile phones. The government could issue voting tokens to citizens through a unique mobile wallet address connected to voter registration information, and voters could send the tokens to their preferred candidates.

Blockchain ledgers are transparent to all of the participants in the network. Anyone can see Bitcoin’s blockchain; the entire record of transactions is publicly available. This gives users faith in the integrity of the network because it can be audited and verified in real time by the entire network of users. With a blockchain voting system, we could see the record of votes as they happen in real time with almost instant verification.

Distributed ledgers like blockchains are not stored on any one particular server, but distributed among nodes in a network. The strength of distributed systems like blockchains is that a local failure of any node in the network cannot crash the whole system because the other nodes in the network still update and maintain the blockchain. This feature also means it is very difficult to alter a blockchain entry once it has been recorded without a massive amount of computing power or a shutdown of the entire network. This makes such a system less vulnerable to hackers.

While blockchain voting might seem like an elegant solution to our electoral problems, it faces significant barriers to adoption. Indeed, with Republican voter suppression efforts like insidious voter ID laws, it’s clear that half of our country's politicians don't really want to make voting easier. Vinny Lingham, the CEO of Civic, an identity verification and management company, has argued that you can’t have blockchain voting without identity verification. And whether blockchain voting works or not, the same questions about voter IDs and accusations of fraud are likely to emerge.

There are a number of startups working to create secure digital identity services that would allow people to verify their identities before engaging in activities like voting, but most states are not ready to take that leap yet. Until then, blockchain voting systems are unlikely to be rolled out.

There are some flawed assumptions and hollow political beliefs underlying blockchain evangelism in government. A digital ledger is not a panacea for what most ails our democracy. Blockchains do not solve austerity, generational poverty, pollution and institutional racism any more than the neoliberal institutions we have already built to meekly confront these challenges. Even if blockchain does live up to the hype, building blockchain-based voting platforms that manage real elections will require careful planning and democratic feedback. The capacity of blockchains to create decentralized voting systems may “disrupt” the flawed electoral process we have, but that doesn’t guarantee we can replace it with something better.

Julian is a writer who lives in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter: @JulianGottlieb

By Julian Gottlieb

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Bitcoin Blockchain Cryptocurrency Democracy E-voting Hacking Silicon Valley Technology Voting