In the wake of the Kenya Supreme Court ruling to nullify last month’s presidential elections due to suspected vote manipulation, observers have new grounds for revisiting ways to ensure transparency at each step in the voting process.
With so much distrust of official election results, not just in Kenya and other developing countries, but also in places like the US, some abstentionists argue that it doesn’t matter who votes, but more importantly, who counts the vote. The challenge facing e-voting and counting systems looking to ensure transparency is that the visually-verifiable steps, for example how a ballot is marked, is an automated process that takes place inside an electronic system that cannot be seen by the voters and other observers.
A degree of transparency can be achieved by ensuring voting machines and counting equipment are heavily regulated, certified and meet necessary requirements and by allowing stakeholders to understand, have access to and effectively observe the e-voting process. However, an end-to-end verification process is necessary to ensure a central authority who controls the e-voting platform cannot simply add, remove or manipulate votes. Perhaps a more decentralized approach to checking that all votes have been tabulated and recorded accurately could enhance integrity and restore voter confidence.
For these reasons, people have long proposed that the blockchain, which allows the Bitcoin system to work properly, could be applied to e-voting. The transparency of the blockchain enables anybody to independently verify that no coins are being generated out of thin air, other than those being mined, and that none are disappearing into space, as all Bitcoin transactions are publicly visible. Because of these characteristics, people in the tech world have proposed concepts for using the blockchain to conduct elections.
However, just simply being able to store votes and results in a secure and publicly verifiable way is only a small part of the challenge. Any e-voting solution built on the transparency of the blockchain and it’s public ledger approach will first need to address the obvious issue of voter anonymity. The ability to maintain voter privacy to prevent against voter coercion and vote buying is just as important as enabling election observers the ability to prove votes. Secondly, the system must have safeguards against illegal votes and ensure only votes from eligible voters are tabulated.
These two major issues pose a circular challenge. A mechanism for voter authentication is necessary but at the same time must not weaken security or jeopardize voter privacy by becoming a store of e-voting authentication information that becomes a target for hackers.
Blockchain early adopters and startups have already developed functioning proof of concepts (PoC) for e-voting platforms that aim to address these challenges and more. Estonia has been the leading country in the development of Blockchain-based systems with the implementation of e-residency and eHealth projects. This made the country a favorable place for this e-voting pilot project. Another promising PoC, VotoSocial, was created by Honduran developers impassioned by the speculation of fraud and citizen mistrust of the 2013 elections in their country.
Although these prototypes still have a long road ahead, they are providing key concepts, frameworks and lessons learned to be explored and improved.