One last item for this series on iVoting that I’m adding by popular inquiry is this new bright shiny object called “Blockchain.” If you’re involved in election technology or computer science in general you’ve probably heard of Blockchain.

For the rest of our readers—many who we know range from policy specialists, to political professionals, to simply citizen voters who care about our democracy, let me try to provide a really high level overview. 

Blockchains have been touted as a way to create elections with integrity and security without needing to rely on a central authority. We’ve written on this before here, have been a bit circumspect here, and our colleagues at Free & Fair have a worthy write-up here. However, let’s take another look at whether Blockchain really can revolutionize elections—and from a perspective of the layperson that only knows someone told them it’s an awesome way to secure elections.  There are plenty of solid technical reviews of this elsewhere—I offered two overview articles above.

What is Blockchain?

Blockchains are a computer science tool that creates a public ledger to store information that is distributed across many computers and can be easily verified. Now, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t really explain how it might make elections secure.  Let’s look at it this way: They’re essentially a chain of actions (in the case of elections this action would be a vote) that are created in a way that assures integrity by employing a lot of computer processing power and mathematics to make it virtually impossible to forge an action. For those of you interested in Blockchain here’s a more detailed and lengthy description (complete with pictures.)

The most famous use of Blockchains are in Bitcoin, the digital currency. Bitcoin uses Blockchains to record financial transactions without having a “central authority,” like a government, required to give them legitimacy. The transactions are recorded on a publicly accessible ledger so everyone can see them.

So what does this have to do with elections?

Many start-ups have proposed that Blockchain could help solve many of the issues associated with iVoting. They point out that Blockchain has the advantage of not requiring a central authority as it works on a distributed system.

While most election technology experts will agree that Blockchains can help with some parts of elections; they agree that Blockchain is unfit, at the very least in its current state, to run elections as a whole. I mentioned above that Free and Fair, and election technology Firm we collaborate with, has written an article describing why this is the case, and we have also considered why the stated reasons for using Blockchain aren’t realistic in current U.S. election administration, but let’s take a little further look here.

The first challenge is that it is difficult to create a Blockchain system that is anonymous.  And anonymity of the vote is a central theme to our democracy. The reason Blockchains can function without a central authority is that they are visible to the public. So, not only does Blockchain struggle to achieve one of the most basic requirements of an election system, its main benefit is somewhat useless in the case of elections. Elections require a central authority as one must exist to determine what issues or offices will be voted on and when the vote must occur. The central authority can then easily publish a ledger.

Now, skeptics might argue that the central authority could be corrupt or malicious, but all of these processes are publicly visible, just as they would be on Blockchain. Election officials strive for transparency and make observation of election processes, where possible, observable by the public.

Yet, perhaps the most concerning issue with Blockchain is the way it resolves disputes. Whenever there is a dispute in Blockchain, for example if there is an inconsistency in a Bitcoin transaction, two separate chains are created: one for each scenario.  The chain with the most processing power, that is, the one that the most computers get behind, wins out and the other disappears. This means that what determines right from wrong in a Blockchain is entirely determined by events taking place afterwards, thus there is not absolute determination.

So, I hope you can see that the many start-ups with visions of “exit-strategy grandeur” in their minds have not likely addressed the practicality of Blockchain technology, and are perhaps a bit over enamored with the elegance of the technology.  Again, I offer that we addressed the practical issues in more detail in this posting from a couple of years ago—you see we’ve been looking just over the horizon for a while; that’s our job at the OSET Institute and the TrustTheVote Project.

Your comments, and in this care particularly, your questions, especially if you’re new to this technical stuff, are encouraged as always!

Election Infrastructure Analyst
Office of the CTO