Blockchain, Good. Blockchain Voting, Bad.
The Non-technical Case Against Blockchain Voting
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The push for blockchain voting as a replacement for the current election system infrastructure of proprietary hardware, software developed by private election technology companies is quietly gaining momentum.
Beta testing programs have started in counties across the U.S., and Blockchain Voting Companies (BVCs) are pitching election officials on the benefits of their new systems. Unfortunately, almost all Americans and our election officials making the decisions to adopt blockchain voting are woefully uninformed about the fundamental technology, how it’s best applied, and the consequences of using blockchain for voting.
Today’s election infrastructure is extremely complex and complicated.
It’s made up of interconnected centralized databases, software, software enabled hardware, computers, peripherals, and other machines that are developed and owned by private companies. These companies sell or lease the bulk of the equipment, software and services to states and localities for multi-millions of dollars, sometimes with contracts lasting almost a decade.
TECHNOLOGY + ELECTIONS = THE BEGINNING OF THE END
When technology was introduced into our elections through The Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, three things happened:
1. U.S. Elections turned into a multi-billion-dollar industry overnight.
2. HAVA set up the conditions that allowed an overly complicated, complex, privately developed, owned, and managed election “machine” to develop.
3. Elected and non-elected election officials with almost no technical skills and zero cyber security expertise were put in charge of evaluating, recommending, selecting, purchasing, running, managing, auditing, and verifying the tech mandated by HAVA to run our elections. This problem persists today.
HAVA fundamentally changed the voting system designed by our Founding Fathers. Voting went from a decentralized civic process where citizens voted at their local precincts, on paper, on election day, with their votes hand-counted by local election officials and volunteers to a centralized, tech-driven, now corrupted “election machine.”
Fig 1. U.S. Election Machine | hollyataltitude.substack.com
NEW TECH IS NOT THE ANSWER
There’s absolutely no question that our election system needs serious fixing to restore integrity, accountability, and trust. However, suggesting “blockchain voting” is a reasonable, feasible, viable solution to fix our current election system is at best a well-meaning misapplication of technology, and at worst a sick joke.
Blockchain voting will not and cannot solve our most critical election problems. Why? Blockchain voting only shifts and creates more problems; it does not solve them. Blockchain is simply another version of technology. Is there any rationality in replacing one corrupted multi-billion-dollar industry with another that is prone to the same?
Writer’s Note: Before going any further, I want to establish that I am a big fan of blockchain technology. I’m excited and confident there will be a time and place where it’s true potential is reached. However, that time is not now. Nor is its place in a citizen’s voting process, or as a replacement for the current U.S. election system.
WHAT IS BLOCKCHAIN?
Simply put, blockchain is an advanced database technology. It’s common for a blockchain to also be described as a digital “immutable ledger.” What this means is that data recorded to a blockchain cannot be changed or removed. Blockchain is a one-way, linear computing process designed to permanently encrypt and store data.
Broadly, the strengths of blockchain tech make it an incredible tool for solving certain problems like securing, recording, and tracking data (transparency). Blockchain’s use of advanced encryption has proven to be a (so far) un-hackable method of verifying and securing data.
WHO YA GONNA CALL? THE BLOCKCHAIN!
As blockchain tech evolved, ideas for blockchain applications exploded. At one point, it felt as if proponents were selling blockchain as the best solution for any digital or hybrid digital use case.
These theoretical use cases all came back to the features, and potential capabilities of blockchain tech. Unbridled excitement was fueled by the values blockchain tech promised: freedom, independence, lack of ownership, decentralization, security, transparency, etc. However, once people started pressing for the details on exactly how blockchain theoretical use-cases would work, reality hit.
Turns out, blockchain wasn’t a “fix-all for everything.”
Well-meaning people who love the tech and the promises it holds claim that because blockchain embodies some characteristics that we want to see changed in our current election system—security, transparency, liberty, ownership freedom—they pitch the wonders of blockchain voting as a fix for the problems in our current election system.
WHAT IS BLOCKCHAIN VOTING?
It’s a good question. Definitions of blockchain voting very wildly.
On one end of the spectrum, blockchain enthusiasts with no grasp of how the U.S. election system works spout vague headlines like, “Blockchain can be used for voting.” Anyone with a general understanding of both blockchain tech and how our election system works are left asking, “Okay. What is the plan for how this works?”
As the cliché goes, the devil is in the details.
In the middle, blockchain voting advocates propose piecemeal solutions for where to apply blockchain tech within our current broken election system. Ideas like using the blockchain for verifying voter identification, or uploading completed ballots to a blockchain for transparency and tracking etc.
Some of these ideas have merit, but as they stand now, they’re based on a false premise that solving isolated problems can meaningfully solve our election system’s problems overall.
On the other end of the spectrum, blockchain voting companies are pitching their step-by-step versions of blockchain voter user journeys. These companies are focused on the individual voter experience, wants, and needs. No matter the company, their voting solutions are predictably similar; it’s a stew of many convoluted steps: smartphone app downloads, QR codes, bar codes, public and private keys, verification steps, relays of encrypted and non-encrypted information, serialized ballots, scanning, tear-off paper ballot receipts, digital wallets and more.
In the end, BVCs and blockchain advocates all promise a version of the same three things:
1. Voters’ ballots are uploaded to a blockchain, creating a secure record that can’t be changed, or deleted.
2. Voters can track their own, and everyone else’s ballots on the blockchain.
3. Voters can trust their ballots will be counted quickly and accurately.
There are so many points of contention with any proposed version of blockchain voting which need to be vetted to be understood. Currently, the blockchain voting debate hovers at the wrong altitude, focusing on the details of the tech. Unfortunately, this misses the broader points that make those tech discussions irrelevant.
For this first piece, I’ll cover some of the high points of the big problems with blockchain voting that are being ignored: ownership, profitability, integration, centralization, and trust. These are the topics challenging blockchain voting that everyone, including non-technical people need to consider.
CASE 1: OWNERSHIP AND PROFITABILITY
Vendors enjoy privacy protections under the law, including IP, internal communications, financial reporting etc. Private companies can legally block access to all this critical information needed to effectively manage, oversee, monitor, and audit the equipment used in the election process.
This causes a multitude of problems in our election system, for voters, for election officials, and the legal system. It affects transparency, accountability, profitability, auditing, administration, investigations, and trust.
Blockchain voting advocates posit that, because open block chains are not owned by any single entity that blockchain voting will solve many problems our privatized election system has, including security, transparency, and trust.
BLOCKCHAIN VOTING IS NEVER “OWNERLESS” AND PROFITABILITY IS GUARANTEED
The tech matters. Right now, BVCs aren’t clear about which chain they’re using for their product. We don’t know if BVCs are developing a proprietary blockchain or using an open blockchain for their tech backbone.
Worst case scenario for the American election system happens if the government or BVCs are the ones developing a private (or multiple private, proprietary blockchains) for voting. If BVCs are developing a private blockchain, this means that a private company will control the entire blockchain infrastructure. If the government develops the blockchain, then our elections are state-owned and run by private companies, leaving little chance of public accountability and oversight. Hardly an improvement from our current system.
Patent protection. Are BVCs patenting any of the company’s technology? If so, this blocks both public and election officials’ access to critical technology impacting evaluation, security, accountability, investigation, monitoring, auditing etc. This mimics the current situation created by private electronic voting equipment vendors.
Who owns the extensive infrastructure required to make blockchain voting usable? Regardless of using an open or private blockchain, BVCs must develop all the apps, interfaces, connections, equipment, APIs, software etc. to make their solution usable for the average voter. Are BVCs going to own and control all that infrastructure and data?
How will ownership work for the supporting infrastructure needed to integrate blockchain tech to other legacy government election equipment, databases, software etc.?
Open-source, decentralized blockchains don’t solve the problems. BVCs will most likely challenge the public/private ownership argument by open-sourcing their computer code. They will claim their blockchain solution is decentralized in how it runs. However, this doesn’t dismiss the core problem. At some point, the BVC (or the blockchain creator) had full control of the blockchain tech. There’s no telling how that genesis impacts the integrity of the system from the start.
Who funded the BVC?
Who was involved in developing the tech?
Are there partnership or integration deals with other companies or the government?
What privacy and security measures are the company responsible for, how are they guaranteed, tested, verified etc?
Blockchain governance (I couldn’t resist adding a point for the technically inclined). BVCs and advocates so far have not explained a blockchain voting system’s governance plan, or the reward system for running an assumed decentralized, open blockchain. Are they tacitly suggesting that our election system is monetized?
Is there going to be an ICO?
Who and how decides the initial valuation?
How many tokens will be issued?
What is the plan for burning, mining difficulty, forking etc.
Blockchain voting companies have the exact same issues as the current electronic voting companies.
Fundamentally, a BVC is a for-profit company. So, whichever company or companies develop the blockchain tech and supporting infrastructure controls and inevitably profits from their work. When money is involved in the multi-billion-dollar elections industry where the highest stakes in the world are at play—power, influence, and wealth—BVCs are at risk of corruption.
Are we to believe and trust that just because blockchain is involved that there’s any difference from any other electronic voting company?
CASE 2: SECURITY AND INTEGRATION
Running an election is obviously much more complex and complicated than a single voter’s voting experience. Election officials use current election systems to manage thousands of transactions during election administration. Database and IT management is at the core of this process, from voter databases that in broad terms issue, process, track, manage and store ballots.
Unfortunately, all election officials completely lack the technical experience and skillset to properly secure their state and local election infrastructure. This means equipment vendors and tech contractors, along with some state and government IT employees are completely controlling the entire election process in nearly every jurisdiction in the country.
Because the current system processes paper ballots, it requires integrating the real world of people and paper with the digital world consisting of multiple databases, hardware, software, computers and peripherals like routers and scanners as a sample. To add to the complexity, within the election system integrated hardware and software multiple databases are required for operation of these individual subsystems. Integration is one of the key weaknesses caused by technology driven election systems. Each piece of equipment, connection, API, app, smartphone etc. is a cybersecurity vulnerability.
Blockchain voting advocates sell voters on the promise that elections will be more convenient, secure, transparent, and trackable for voters. Tech-illiterate election officials are guaranteed their election administration job gets MUCH EASIER, and MORE CONVENIENT (for the officials) if they adopt blockchain voting.
The pitch goes on, claiming blockchain voting is more cost-effective, and efficient. When the tech-talk gets fancy, advocates tout blockchain authentication benefits highlighting steps in the blockchain voting process like unique QR codes, confirming private keys, and ID verification with selfie video and photo uploads.
BLOCKCHAIN VOTING WILL ALWAYS BE A PART OF THE ESTABLISHED VULNERABLE, CORRUPTED SYSTEM
BVCs and blockchain advocates have misdiagnosed the problem. To suggest replacing a sliver of the overall election system with blockchain voting or a blockchain for securing ballot images, these measures must integrate into an already-corrupted, broken system. This does nothing to cure the same systemic problems: weak cyber-security, lack of transparency, and distrusting technology in our election system.
Databases and blockchains fall prey to the same corruption issue. If corrupted or manipulated data is put into the system, blockchains cannot verify if any of the data people put into the chain is authentic.
For example, let’s say someone puts a digital copy of their ballot on a blockchain. The blockchain has no ability to tell if the digital ballot is forged, a counterfeit, or an image of the original.
BVCs fail to address how the persistent election integrity issues caused from state-managed centralized voter databases, universal mail-in voting, electronic voting and counting. The election system is corrupted at its core, allowing manipulation to happen at scale through these three factors. Blockchain voting would be integrated with these systems.
It’s impossible to cyber-secure any process, connection, action, or equipment that happens or exists outside the blockchain. This process can’t be eliminated because physical ballots and IDs must be prepared (scanned, imaged, transferred etc.) for entry into the blockchain voting system. In fact, it’s well-known that no hardware or software, including phones can be completely secured. Systems are routinely breached, and data manipulated via peripherals outside blockchains, including smartphones and email.
Election administration requires election officials to access, use, manipulate, transfer and store election data; often in real-time. This is driven by election laws, statutes, and rules. Blockchain voting is ill-equipped to execute most election administration requirements due to its design, especially under the current set of legal mandates. Databases and blockchains are not interchangeable in this situation.
Current blockchain voting solutions provide no plan, or process that guarantees:
Ballots are properly and accurately counted. There must be a separate, third-party integrated system for counting ballots.
Proper auditing and ballot reconciliation post-election. There are numerous laws, statutes, and rules governing this process. To complicate things further, each locality and state has different laws. Are the BVCs going to customize its platform for each locality, and manage all the rule changes annually—sometimes more frequently?
It doesn’t matter what version of blockchain tech is suggested; blockchain tech is not a stand-alone voting solution, which means integrating with a corrupted and broken legacy system is a fact. Blockchains are designed for cryptographically securing, recording, and tracking data, not data manipulation, making them unsuitable for many applications throughout the election system.
The existing known security vulnerabilities caused by tech in our election system can’t be solved with different technology alone.
CASE 3: CENTRALIZATION AND TRUST
American’s trust in the U.S. election system continues to decline. Contributing factors include catastrophic security failures, election maladministration, and technology distrust to name a few. However, these symptoms are amplified due to the increasing centralization of our overall election system.
To illustrate one example, only a handful of electronic voting equipment companies exist worldwide. The top three companies are vertically integrated and control around 90% of the U.S. election market. Nearly all of the equipment used in our elections is manufactured in China. The security vulnerabilities and risks are well known. It’s been fully documented: countless billions of dollars, critical military data, and valuable intellectual property have been lost to security breaches through equipment and software breaches.
Nation-state attacks on our critical infrastructure are a persistent, relentless threat. Even with the power and resources of the government and the military, devastating cyber-security breaches occur regularly; in fact, the breach of Solar Winds was one of the most devastating. Worse, our government was unaware of it for MONTHS and the damage is still unknown.
Blockchain technology is trusted because it’s so far been proven to be secure. However, trust only extends to the security within blockchains themselves. Blockchains are inherently secure because of their decentralized operation. However, when it comes to blockchain voting, there are either misunderstandings or misrepresentations for why it should be trusted. Because blockchain tech and decentralization are inextricably linked, it does not mean blockchain voting is inherently secure, or inherently trustworthy.
Centralization is unavoidable in the implementation of blockchain voting. Even the application of using a blockchain within the current election system requires it to be integrated into untrusted election infrastructure.
CENTRALIZATION DESTROYS TRUST IN SYSTEMS
Centralized systems include more than digital data systems. Centralized systems can be businesses, vendors, markets, a government etc. All are prone to security breaches and corruption. Simply because blockchain voting uses decentralization for cyber security in parts of a voter’s journey, it does not apply outside the blockchain.
The practical process of implementing a blockchain voting system within the current un-trusted election infrastructure requires extensive integration with the government, existing equipment, processes, and other private companies. Inevitably, BVCs will work with the electronic voting companies who have created and control the corrupted, broken system. This means blockchain voting starts off corrupted to some degree, inevitably contributing to the untrustworthy system.
To implement blockchain voting, it takes for-profit BVCs. Even with a proliferation of BVCs over time competing for business, there will never be enough companies to decentralize the control over the entire election system.
SUMMARY: HOW BLOCKCHAIN VOTING WENT WRONG
I believe two factors have led to the misdirected push for blockchain:
First, the overwhelming, obvious motivation to restore integrity and trust to our election system.
Second, a portion of tech-forward people who see the value and potential of blockchain technology are suggesting it can be applied to voting, yet they don’t fully understand the entire election system.
When we’re faced with solving a problem, we all go back to what we know, use our skills and our familiar tools; surgeons cut, politicians spend, techies tech. This works when we properly diagnose the problem we’re fixing.
In the case of blockchain voting, the scope, depth, complexity, and inner workings of the “U.S. election machine” are misunderstood in varying degrees. This is how some suggest solutions misapply the tech, proposed applications are riddled with blind-spots, and the negative consequences of implementation are ignored.
Badlands Media articles and features represent the opinions of the contributing authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Badlands Media itself.
If you enjoyed this contribution to Badlands Media, please consider checking out more of my work for free at Holly at Altitude.
PAPER BALLOTS are the ONLY WAY TO STOP MASS COMPUTERIZED HACKING AND CONTROL OF THE VOTIN SYSTEM. YES PAPER BALLOTS CAN BE FORGED BUT NOT ON THE SAME SCALE AND AS QUICK AS C)OMPUTER VOTING. ALL BALLOTS NEED TO BE VERRIFIED BY NOTHING MORE THAN WATERMARKS OR ANOYHER FORM OF PREVENYINGH FRADULENT BALLOTS!
What happened to voting like we used to. The old paper ballots (absolutely no machines) that only you knew who you voted for etc.