Blockchain won’t make voting easier or better — it’ll make it worse


voting boothJessica McGowan/Getty Images

  • Looking to making voting practices more convenient, increase
    voter turnout, and modernize practices, many government officials
    and companies are looking to blockchain to help. 
  • Blockchain systems have created new ways for people to
    invest, send money, and may help store records that make
    credentials, land ownership, and food origins more transparent
    and harder to forge. 
  • However, three researchers who study traditional and
    blockchain-based voting share why blockchain won’t help fix
    voting issues — and they can in fact make things worse. 

Looking to modernize voting practices,
speed waiting times at the
polls
, increase voter turnout and
generally make voting more convenient, many government
officials – and some companies hawking voting systems – are
looking to an emerging technology called a “blockchain.” That’s
what’s behind a West Virginia program in which
some voters serving abroad in the
military
 will be able
to cast their votes from their mobile devices.
Similar voting schemes have been tried
elsewhere
 in various places around the world.

As researchers in the Initiative for
CryptoCurrencies and Contracts
, we believe in
the transformative potential of blockchain
systems
 in a number of industries. Best
known as the technology behind bitcoin and other
cryptocurrencies, blockchains can do much more than allow
anonymous strangers to send each other money without fear of
fraud or tampering. They have created new ways for people to
invest in technology ventures that
have attracted billions of dollars, and may someday
store records that make educational
credentials, land ownership and food origins more
transparent and harder to forge.

Blockchains might sound like an ideal remedy for the trust problems caused by
internet voting. Data can only be added to a blockchain – not
deleted or changed – because multiple copies are stored on
computers owned by different people or organizations and perhaps
spread across different countries. Strict controls can be placed
on a blockchain’s contents, preventing unauthorized data from
being added. And blockchains are designed to be transparent –
with their contents often readable by anyone’s computing device
anywhere in the world.

Yet as scholars who have studied traditional and
blockchain-based voting, we believe that while blockchains may
help with some specific issues, they can’t fix the basic problems
with internet voting. In fact, they could make things worse.

Computers can break, or be broken

For years, experts on election security have warned
that the internet is too
dangerous
 for such socially crucial and
time-sensitive functions as voting. Renowned cryptographer Ronald
Rivest, for instance, has remarked that “Best practices for internet
voting
 are like best practices for drunk
driving” – there’s no safe way to do either one.

The stakes are enormous. Democracy
requires widespread public trust 
not just that a declared winner actually received the largest
number of votes, but in the integrity of the system as a
whole. People need to trust that the votes they cast are the ones
that are counted, that their neighbors’ votes are totaled
accurately and not the result of bribery or coercion and that
local tallies are communicated safely to state election
officials.

Even advanced computing devices today cannot provide such
assurances. Most hardware and software
are rife with hidden security flaws, and
are not regularly updated. Devices are vulnerable,
and so are networks. Internet outages – even
caused by trivialities like gamers trying to get a leg
up
 on their competitors – could prevent
people from voting. Intentional, targeted attacks against
internet traffic could cause major disruptions to democratic institutions on a
national scale
.

The stability and integrity of democratic society itself are too
important to be relegated to flawed computer systems.

Adversaries are looking for opportunities

Hackers – backed by foreign governments or not –
are always looking for new targets and fresh ways
to sow social discord. They’ll find –
and fully exploit – any
technical weaknesses available to them. Without
a paper trail, the very possibility that
someone could have secretly changed votes
will further erode public
trust
 in democratic elections.

Blockchains depend on computing devices

A key method by which blockchain voting could worsen election
integrity is by claiming to increase trustworthiness without
actually doing so.

It’s easy to imagine a voting system in which only authorized
voters could cast ballots, with those ballots indelibly recorded
on a blockchain. The blockchain would act as a single
authoritative election record that could not be erased or
tampered with. For all intents and purposes, the record would be
hack-proof.

However, tallying votes on a blockchain doesn’t magically make a
voter’s phone or computer secure. A vote may be securely
recorded, but that means nothing if the vote was cast incorrectly
to begin with. If your phone is infected with malware that
switches your vote from Candidate R to Candidate D, it doesn’t
matter how secure the rest of the voting system is – the election
has still been hacked. In some cases, blockchains may be able
to help voters detect that sort of
tampering
 – but only if the hack-detection
software itself hasn’t been hacked.

In addition, some companies’ business practices undermine the
potential to trust their blockchain systems.
The manufacturer of the system West Virginia will
use
 in November – like many companies
manufacturing physical voting machines –
is refusing to embrace the
transparency
 that is central to the
security industry, the blockchain community, and democracy
itself. They are not providing public access to the cryptographic
protocols at the heart of their systems, leaving the public
instead to rely on the manufacturer’s promises of security.
There’s no way for an independent auditor to be truly certain
that the systems are free of subtle bugs or security flaws – or
even massive holes that would be obvious to experts.

Vote buying becomes newly possible

Another way blockchain voting could worsen existing voting
problems is by increasing the likelihood of vote buying.
Sometimes a glass of beer is all that’s
needed to bribe a voter. Vote buying is happily rare in
large-scale U.S. elections, in part because the secret ballot
makes verifying a bought vote very difficult and because there
are serious criminal penalties.

Internet voting could completely negate both of these
protections. Putting votes on blockchains eliminates the secrecy
of the voting booth. Encryption doesn’t help: Software can prove
mathematically to a vote buyer that a voter’s device encrypted
the name of a particular candidate. In addition, foreigners who
might try to influence people’s votes are
very hard to prosecute.

Some voting companies contend that
their systems publicly identify voters only by random numerical
identifiers, so they aren’t
subject to vote-buying or intimidation
. But in many of these
systems, voting identities can be linked to accounts in
cryptocurrency systems – where a voter could receive a
bribe, potentially without
revealing
 who was paid, how much or by
whom.

Officials and companies who promote online voting are creating a
false sense of security – and putting the integrity of the
election process at risk. In seeking to use blockchains as a
protective element, they may in fact be introducing new threats
into the crucial mechanics of democracy.

Ari Juels is a professor of computer science at Jacobs
Technion-Cornell Institute, Cornell Tech, and co-director of the
Initiative for CryptoCurrencies and Contracts (IC3) at Cornell
University. Ittay Eyal is the associate director of the
Initiative For Cryptocurrencies and Contracts (IC3) and assistant
professor of electrical engineering at Technion — Israel
Institute of Technology. Oded Naor is a member of the Initiative
For Cryptocurrencies and Contracts (IC3), visiting researcher at
Cornell-Tech, and graduate student in electrical engineering at
Technion — Israel Institute of Technology.

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