|Martin D. Weiss, PhD and Juan M. Villaverde
What will it take for blockchain, more broadly called Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), to go mainstream and change the world as we know it today?
In the first part of this series, we demonstrated that it will be killer dApps — Distributed Applications that solve real problems for millions of people.
Two weeks ago, we showed you that the most likely to emerge the soonest will be killer dApps that disrupt social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
And last week, we predicted a new banking revolution led by killer dApps that could revolutionize — or sometimes even replace — traditional bank credit with peer-to-peer lending platforms.
But among all the likely applications of DLT, one of the most overlooked — and most revolutionary — is the potential to remedy some of the thorniest challenges of 21st-century elections.
The Global Election Crisis
In a landmark Harvard study, political scientist Pippa Norris documents an election crisis of massive global dimensions:
The United States, she writes, suffers from intensely partisan polarization over electoral procedures: One side pushes hard for stricter registration and voter identification, which risks excluding legitimate voters. The other side pushes for more lenient rules, which could make elections more vulnerable to fraud. And the resulting stalemate has left voters stranded with neither problem any closer to resolution.
Indeed, U.S. voters experienced so many irregularities in the 2012 and 2014 elections, the United States received the worst rating for election integrity among all Western democracies, according to the Electoral Integrity Project, an organization founded by Harvard and the University of Sydney.
But if you think that’s bad, consider the multiple killers of fair elections that Norris describes in many developing democracies:
“Independent media are muzzled. Citizens are ill-informed about choices. Balloting is disrupted by bloodshed. Ballot boxes are stuffed. Vote counts are fiddled. … Incompetent local officials run out of ballot papers. Incumbents are immune from effective challengers. Rallies trigger riots. … Voting machines jam. Lines lengthen. Ballot box seals break. Citizens cast more than one ballot. Legal requirements serve to suppress voting rights. Polling stations are inaccessible. Software crashes. ‘Secure’ ink washes off fingers.”
We know something about these shenanigans and disasters. We’ve witnessed them personally in Latin America, studied how they occur in Africa and, more often than you’d think, also seen some similar situations in the United States.
But rather than dwell on the problems, let’s switch gears and …
Imagine a future in which elections are based entirely on DLT!
All voters get online access. If you can’t afford a PC or mobile device, you get access to a dedicated election device that’s dirt-cheap or available as a loaner.
The election dApp is so simple that computer illiteracy is not a barrier. Even people with reading impediments can use it. And if all else fails, there are volunteers ready to assist.
The election device/dApp serves as a registration center, voting machine and info source all in one. It includes a color photo and personal video on each candidate, along with a Q&A and links to the candidate’s social media page or equivalent.
The first thing you do with the dApp is register, and all you need is an ID card along with your fingerprint or eye scan.
Most of your personal info is recorded on a distributed ledger that’s decentralized, secure, never controlled by any single individual or entity, and accessible from anywhere.
The decentralized database provides the same (or better) security, anonymity, transparency and speed as the most advanced cryptocurrency networks. But instead of storing money and financial transactions, it stores registrations and voting transactions. The Distributed Ledger Technology doesn’t care what the actual content of the transactions is. Data is data. And it handles elections just as efficiently as it handles money.
When it comes time to vote, all you need is the dApp and your finger or eye for identification. You can vote online from your home, your place of work or while on vacation. And, of course, polling stations can still be available, letting you access the distributed database via your PC and other devices.
It doesn’t matter where you vote because, once you do, the DLT makes it impossible for you to vote again in the same election.
Paper ballots, which are strongly recommended by election security experts for rigorous post-election audits, will no longer be necessary. In a DLT-based election, the entire database of votes is already replicated on thousands of computers, the ultimate in back-up for auditing purposes.
Plus, results are tabulated in real time and, once voting ends, available to the public instantly.
No vote goes uncounted, and none is double-counted.
Media cannot be censored because the flow of info is via DLT-based social media and other platforms that communicate with, or are integrated into, the election dApp.
Citizens get immediate access to info about their choices.
Balloting is very unlikely to be disrupted by public protests or violence because far fewer people vote in public places.
Ballot boxes aren’t stuffed because there are no ballot boxes to begin with.
There’s rarely a reason for opposition candidates to withdraw.
The election results are known to all. So it’s far more difficult for contenders to reject the people’s choice.
Ink doesn’t wash off fingers because there’s no ink.
And courts are only needed to resolve complaints in very exceptional situations.
In sum …
A DLT-based election system provides far greater
security from fraud, protection against hacking,
and democratic access — all at the same time.
If this sounds too good to be true, it’s because, for now at least, it IS too good to be true. It’s our forecast of the future — not a current reality.
DLT networks that could support an election system for the masses — such as EOS, Cardano, NEO or Hedera Hashgraph — are still in development.
The election dApps barely exist.
And the integration that will probably be needed — combining election dApps, social media dApps and DLT databases of government IDs — has not even begun. But here’s the key:
The fact that DLT-based election development is
still in its infancy doesn’t detract, by one iota, from
the power and relative certainty of its future.
It does, however, seem to give critics the space to denounce the concept.
Jesse Dunietz, for example, a computer scientist writing for Scientific American, asks whether blockchains are the answer for secure elections. His answer: “Probably not,” and he cites unnamed cybersecurity and voting experts who see “blockchains as needlessly complicated and no more secure than other online ballots.”
“Functionally,” adds Dunietz, “a blockchain is simply a convoluted database.”
We firmly believe he’s wrong because DLT solves a fundamental deficiency of databases for digital money and electronic voting: It doesn’t permit double usage.
For digital money, that means DLT solved the double-spend problem. By giving every user access to all transaction records from the beginning of the ledger and by enforcing strict rules, DLT makes it impossible for someone to spend the same Bitcoin more than once.
Likewise, for elections, it solves the double-vote problem. As soon as you’ve cast your vote on the ledger, you cannot vote again.
DLT will not prevent all corruption. But as the needed dApps gain mass adoption, they will revolutionize elections. They will play an important role in countering some of the threats to democracy that we see emerging across the globe. And they will be a driving force for broader, fairer and more honest governance.
Martin D. Weiss and Juan M. Villaverde