The election cycle has reached its predictable fever pitch, and one issue receiving particular attention this year is the vulnerability of electronic voting systems to tampering, either intentionally (think hacking or voter fraud) or unintentionally (think hanging chads or lost ballots). Although it is unlikely that a consensus solution will be implemented in the near future, experts in both public and private sectors are advocating a technology upgrade for America’s voting systems, and blockchain technology may offer the best hope of eventually cyber-securing our elections. Potential applications of blockchain technology are still in their infancy, but voting systems that adopt the technology may be able to provide significantly higher levels of certainty, transparency, and security, making elections much more efficient and much less susceptible to fraud, hacking, or simple human error.
An estimated 70 percent of states use some form of electronic voting, but aging technology has increased the susceptibility to insider manipulation and hacking. In one incident drawing national attention last year, Virginia decertified certain electronic voting machines, after state officials determined that the machines posed a serious risk of being compromised by hackers. This year, experts have repeatedly demonstrated the ease with which some electronic voting machines can be tampered with. Recent examples include a team at Symantec and Princeton professor Andrew Appel, both of whom conducted successful mock hacking exercises to illustrate the risks facing this year’s election. In August, the Senate Homeland Security Committee warned that “a cyberattack by foreign actors on our elections systems could compromise the integrity of our voting process.”
Perhaps the most prominent election-related security breach this year, however, involved the release of Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails obtained by hackers. Although not related to voting machines, these hacks demonstrate the risks posed by the growth of online voting, which is now offered by 32 states mostly for military and other citizens located abroad. In short, online voting exponentially increases the accessibility of the system, which exponentially increases the associated threats. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security’s cyber-division has warned against the adoption of online voting for any elections at this time, due to risk of tampering and potential loss of voter privacy.
The solution to these issues will undoubtedly continue to be the subject of much debate, but there is a growing consensus that a better voting system is needed sooner rather than later. Blockchain technology may be the answer that election officials are looking for. Some companies (e.g., Follow My Vote and Blockchain Technologies Corp.) are developing early applications for both online voting and electronic voting machines, which strive to harness blockchain’s ability to transfer assets (including intangible assets like votes) securely in low trust environments. If successful, the potential benefits are myriad:
Certain Results. Everyone remembers Bush v. Gore, when cadres of lawyers descended on Florida and “hanging chad” became a household term. A major attraction of blockchain technology is its ability to provide certainty of election results, particularly in close races where every vote counts. Unlike existing systems, blockchain technology uses a system of uniquely identified ballots, processed through a decentralized ledger, to ensure that each vote is tracked and counted for the intended candidate in real time. It may even be possible some day for voters to track their votes and confirm when the votes are credited to their chosen candidates. Simply put, blockchain could make recounts—and all that accompanies them—a relic of the past.
Transparent Process. The traditional voting process is a bit of a black box—once votes are cast, it is incumbent upon a voting machine (using proprietary software) and a handful of state election officials to ensure that all votes are processed correctly. Blockchain’s decentralized ledger makes the process much more transparent by empowering election officials, the candidates, and even the voters themselves to verify independently that votes are not mishandled. If a dispute does arise, blockchain offers audit features not found in current voting systems. By illuminating the process, blockchain promises to decrease the cost and time of resolving a disputed election and to increase the public’s confidence in the outcome.
Heightened Security. As discussed above, the traditional voting process is also increasingly risky from a security perspective. Blockchain directly addresses the threats posed by hackers or others looking to manipulate elections. It uses cryptography to track ballots and confirm that each registered voter only casts one vote (while still maintaining voter privacy). Once the vote is cast, it is recorded electronically in the blockchain, creating a permanent record that cannot be tampered with by insiders. And blockchain’s decentralized ledger deters potential hackers and other outsiders by eliminating the risk that votes may be accessed from outside the system and altered without detection.
Obviously, there is much at stake in any election, and any risk of tampering is concerning. But the risk is magnitudes greater in the presidential election, with so much riding on an electoral system in which the results of a few swing states could determine the winner. The evidence suggests we do not have a good answer to the increasingly prevalent technological risks threatening our elections. But blockchain technology may be the right catalyst for change.