On March 7, 2018, voters in Sierra Leone participated in the first ever blockchain-based national election to determine who would replace Ernest Bai Koroma as President of the country. More than two-thirds of voting centers used the novel technology, making it the election that saw the most widespread use of blockchain in history. Technology evangelists around the world lauded the measure, saying that it introduced more transparency and security to the process, and the move has been celebrated as one of the most forward-thinking in the continent of Africa.
However, we must ask ourselves one question: Does simply using a blockchain to power the voting process really provide such a secure environment, or will the whole thing actually lead to the “complacency of convenience” that has so far managed to poison a large portion of the technology industry?
Looking at Other Use Cases
Taking a peek into blockchain technology, we can already see previous examples of it put to use. We’ll look at two examples: cryptocurrencies and land registrars.
In the cryptocurrency world we see the very birth of the blockchain, a principle that largely still governs the ecosystems of all the alternative stores of value created since Bitcoin first appeared in 2009. It was supposed to be an “unhackable” miracle of technology that couldn’t be modified no matter how much hackers tried. The corruption of a blockchain would theoretically require a quantity of computing power and resources the likes of which no group of hackers could realistically attain.
Since they made their debut, they popularized the notion that blockchains are safe ways to store information in a decentralized and immutable manner. Unfortunately, the applications surrounding the blockchains were not as secure.
The Mt. Gox incident in 2014 led to a massive theft of Bitcoin. And just when everyone thought the worst was over, Coincheck — another Japanese exchange — suffered an attack of a similar magnitude in 2017, losing about a half billion dollars in Bitcoin.
Hackers have even subverted the wallets of individuals, stealing their money with impunity. Theoretically, the Bitcoin blockchain itself may never have been hacked, but that doesn’t mean that the Bitcoin ecosystem was free of tampering.
Looking at land registrars, we can see good examples of blockchains being put to use in Ukraine, India, and the United Arab Emirates.
In all of these instances, the land registrars were moved to the blockchain in order to combat the corruption inherent in using paper-based systems. In this particular case, all of the systems running the blockchain are owned by the state.
The state is counting on the fact that land registrars around Ukraine won’t suddenly be interested in changing the record for one piece of property in Lviv. Even if the system would have imperfections and vulnerabilities, it works better than the previous paper system.
Voting Is a Completely Different Beast
Although we’ve seen that some state-oriented blockchain applications could certainly improve the quality of services that government agencies offer, it’s not a given that the technology can be implemented in the election process with the same level of success. The main reason behind this is there’s just too much at stake.
Political parties might wield more influence in certain districts than others, making people turn a blind eye to corruption regardless of what technological barriers are placed on them.
Think of it this way: while a blockchain itself is immutable (unless, of course, you make it mutable by meddling with the consensus, which is easy to do when more than half the systems are yours), the machines that send votes to the blockchain are still corruptible.
This isn’t to say that blockchain technology isn’t a useful tool in preventing electoral corruption; it just shouldn’t be the single solution that election committees rely on to do this.
While it does offer transparency and anonymity to some extent, a blockchain itself doesn’t control what happens to voting machines.
Maybe a specific candidate’s name would be shown in bold. Perhaps the machine would “erroneously” vote in your place. The same problems that have plagued electronic voting systems could still affect blockchain voting. In the end, it always matters most who (or what) counts the votes, not the technology inside the system.
Do you think that blockchain-based voting would be beneficial over current electronic and paper-based elections? Tell us what you think in a comment!