Combating Electoral Fraud Through Blockchain
The right to vote is a fundamental right & privilege guaranteed to all United States citizens by the constitution. By definition, voting is a means of expression on some of the most important issues that the nation faces. As a representative democracy, the people of the United States decide on political representatives, who then decide on the policies and laws in which to adopt to guide the country forward. The 2020 general election was a pivotal moment for society as a record number of people cast their votes on the President, Senate, and House that will lead the country through the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the current climate, voters are understandably worried about the risk of spreading the virus, leading millions of voters to cast mail-in ballots and avoid in-person voting. President Trump raised concerns throughout the election period over the possibility of electoral fraud where a state’s recorded votes do not truly reflect the votes cast by the people.
Typical ballot fraud over the last 100 years has consisted of ballots being thrown out, tampered with, ballot stuffing, ballot invalidation, etc. A Harvard CAPS-Harris poll finds that 78% of American voters share this concern of voter tampering1. The widespread use of mail-in ballots makes identification and fraud significantly more difficult to manage.
Regardless of the cause of these mistakes, there are detrimental consequences to the nation, especially at times where the election is decided by a few swing states that are almost equally split between the parties.
No matter the scale of voter fraud, or the means of fraud being used, a system is required to ensure integrity of votes cast, verify voter identity, and eliminate the risks of thrown out and uncounted ballots.
Our present voting system creates many opportunities for potential fraud as news reports are seen everyday regarding lost ballots, ballot invalidation, discarding, and double counting. Even if elections have been fairly run and actual fraud barely exists, there is a perception of fraud in American society today.
All elections should be free and fair to avoid bias or corruption and allow the voices of the people to be heard. Thus, it is natural to consider how a system can be built to handle the risks of fraud and abuse while ensuring every vote is counted. One such system leverages blockchain technology. Blockchain is a distributed ledger of data and is a record shared across all verified users in a network, making it decentralized; the decentralization removes the possibility for corruption because the chain of records exists on millions of nodes concurrently. Of course, there is an obvious concern over the privacy of the ballot and possibility of having a distributed ledger recorded for how every individual in the country has voted.
A blockchain network contains participants, in this case, the voters, who can cast their votes by sending a transaction to the network. This action is verified by a consensus algorithm such as proof-of-work and is permanently recorded and stored on the chain, where it will be immutable.
Voting Blockchain Network Diagram3
The immutability of the transactions ensure that casted votes cannot be thrown away or uncounted, which eliminates the risk of human error during the counting process and automates both the counting and audit functions within an election process. Transactions are checked by multiple nodes in the network that compare their results and reach a consensus as to what was recorded in the transaction. This means that transactions are hard to change, and hence immutable, after they are committed to the blockchain because of the amount of computing power required to take control of the network (51% attack) and rewrite blocks of transactions. Satoshi Nakamoto, founder of Bitcoin, demonstrated that the probability an attacker could create an alternate false chain faster than the honest chain is almost negligible9.
A significant problem seen in the 2020 election is the processing time required to count and validate ballots. The state of Nevada, a key swing state, took days after election day to count votes, delaying election results and raising concerns of voter fraud. Delays occur not only in Nevada but in other states accepting late mail-in ballots as well. The USPS explicitly warned the states that ballots may arrive late because of internal issues and restructuring of mail sorting. The election process is slowed down by manual verification and processing time, all of which add costs and room for human error.
Aside from immutability, blockchain also has the benefit of fast processing and approval of transactions, saving large amounts of costs and time required in traditional processes. This would significantly speed up ballot counting and have election results much sooner. A consensus algorithm allows rapid verification of transactions that are recorded to blocks in the network. Proof-of-work, Proof-of-stake, and Byzantine Fault-Tolerance (BFT) are commonly used to ensure the speed and integrity of the transaction verifications. Ethereum 2.0, using proof-of-stake, will have a throughput of up to 100,000 transactions per second7.
The voting platform would use a smart contract containing methods for validating identification and sending transactions to the blockchain as the backend. The voting records will remain anonymous by setting strict permission guidelines within the blockchain. The smart contract will be able to confirm that the user is indeed part of the network and has not already voted. A system like this is capable of preventing voter fraud and giving transparency to the election process.
In fact, the benefits of blockchain were so appealing that Utah county used a blockchain system for the first time for the 2020 presidential election4.
Nevertheless, there are drawbacks to using a blockchain system for casting votes. The most significant problem may be the accessibility of the technology required to vote using blockchain. To vote, one would need access to a digital platform (phone, laptop, computer) and internet access5. Many voters across the country lack the resources and technological competency required to use such a system. This problem can be addressed by providing access to devices in voting centers and enforcing strict guidelines and monitoring of device usage. A simple guide for accessing the voter platform and verifying identity can be given to voters. There can also be assistance at the voting centers for fixing issues that occur.
The secure nature of the blockchain network depends on the private keys of the voters’ accounts. Each voter would provide their private information and use the private key of their digital wallet to vote by sending a transaction. This private key is unique for every user in the network and can be used as a means of voter identification. It is essential for voters to store their key in a safe place because if the key is stolen, the thief can steal their identity and vote for them on the network2.
There will undoubtedly be cases of key theft because of carelessness and attackers, so voting guides must stress the importance of the key and offer suggestions of storage places (preferably physically hand-written somewhere). However, from a security perspective. It's the equivalent of leaving your password on a piece of paper on your desk. A private key resembles a hash, a long sequence of letters and numbers, and is not easily memorable. Identification is a challenge that is actively being worked on by projects seeking to solve for self-sovereign identity, something that could be built on top of the SSN system or voters registers.
Scalability is another issue of implementing any voting system, especially for the general electi on. Blockchain systems were designed to handle smaller quantities of data and larger amounts of data would add increased transaction fees and time for verification. A lot of research is currently being done on scaling blockchain applications to handle big data. On-chain/Off-chain storage is a potential solution that could be implemented with the voting system. In brief, instead of storing all information (identification, vote, etc.) on the blockchain, they are stored onto an off-chain database. All of this information gets combined into a hash, which is stored on-chain. This requires the blockchain to store significantly less data while also maintaining security by verifying records in the database with on-chain stored hashes.
The positive side is that using a blockchain system has the potential to encourage higher voter turnout because of the convenience. A vote may be cast through a website or phone app instead of having to a voting center or read and fill out long ballots. According to a survey by OneLogin, over 55% of millennials and Gen Z respondents expressed more interest in voting digitally. Furthermore, the possibility of remote voting will ease the concerns of many about the spread of COVID-19 and promote participation. As long as internet access is available, transactions can be sent to the blockchain, which records votes. ID verification in-person is no longer necessary given that voters have their personal information and their account private key, which is essentially their signature.
Furthermore, blockchain networks are sometimes susceptible to security and privacy issues. Smart contracts are deployed to the blockchain network to facilitate voting transactions sent by voters. However, once a smart contract is deployed to the network, it cannot be revoked and edited. The contract’s methods and structure are permanently recorded, so if a privacy issue or bug is found during the election process, it will be incredibly problematic to fix. On a limited scale (smaller/local elections), the consequences of these issues may be less severe.
However, given the complexity and scale of the United States election, countless tests must be performed to ensure functionality and security, which still may not be enough to prevent all issues. The risk of failure is a large factor to consider in implementing a blockchain system. There is the possibility that the voting records of all voters will be made publicly available if the network is breached. However, with extensive security audits and testing by companies such as Peckshield, it is entirely possible to mitigate these risks.
Concerns about large-scale DDoS attacks and malware have also been raised by critics. The reliance of blockchain voting on the internet and digital access opens the opportunity for significant international interference where malicious hackers are exploiting any possible technical flaw6. With sufficient funding, the government can set up a large number of servers to maintain the voting platform, which makes it far more difficult and unlikely for DDoS attacks.
By having different states run consensus on each other's voting systems, there should be sufficient decentralization to deter a 51% attack. Also these networks would be private networks rather than public, which will further increase security. Votes can be cast on the blockchain network while connected to a VPN which encrypts traffic and prevents the leak of information. These are potential solutions that may take time and effort to implement, but if successful, can prevent many attacks.
Many private companies exist that provide a platform for voting through blockchain and facilitate the transactions that are made. Voatz is a company that allows government agencies to use its platform to confirm and count votes; the 2020 Utah county election was hosted through Voatz8.
However, to use blockchain for large elections like the 2020 general election, the blockchain network must be created and managed by the government (FEC - Federal Election Commission) so that sensitive voter information remains private and regulated. This poses a problem for the government because not only are governmental workers untrained in handling such technology, technical resources are also very scarce, making it difficult to have a purely decentralized system. The transition from traditional forms of voting may also prove to be a challenge since the electoral infrastructure would have to drastically change to accommodate the new system using blockchain.
Overall, blockchain technology has great potential to be used for facilitating elections in the future, but many current issues it faces must be addressed. It can be used to solve many of the important problems that past elections have been facing.
The 2020 election has been an unprecedented election faced with difficulties caused by the pandemic; blockchain enables the possibility of remote voting to avoid the spread of the disease. Not only are instances of voter fraud and tampering being alleged throughout the country, but significant delays in counting votes has led to an inconclusive election with no declared winner.
The United States is a nation for freedom of expression which can only be achieved through fair and free voting. Any system of voting will always have some potential flaws or risks, but it is important to embrace and improve new technology to address the current issues at hand. Although blockchain has some current scalability and security risks, it is nevertheless one of the most rapidly developing technologies and is likely to be implemented into the election system in the near future and bring efficiency and security.
Written by Samson Qian
Edited by Paul Marrinan, Jack Argiro, Calvin Ma, Gihyen Eom & Alexander Fleiss
 Esneault, Alexis N. “How Blockchain Technology Can Resolve Concerns Over Mail-In Voter Fraud.” International Business Times, 21 Oct. 2020, www.ibtimes.com/how-blockchain-technology-can-resolve-concerns-over-mail-voter-fraud-3024851.
 Dunietz, Jesse. “Are Blockchains the Answer for Secure Elections? Probably Not.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 16 Aug. 2018, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-blockchains-the-answer-for-secure-elections-probably-not.
 Linder, Courtney. “Is the Postal Service Working On Blockchain-Based Voting?” Popular Mechanics, Popular Mechanics, 19 Aug. 2020, www.popularmechanics.com/technology/security/a33624041/usps-blockchain-voting-patent.
 “Utah County Makes History With Presidential Blockchain Vote.” Government Technology State & Local Articles - E.Republic, www.govtech.com/products/Utah-County-Makes-History-With-Presidential-Blockchain-Vote.html.
 Barrere, Burt, and Dan Goga. The U.S. Election System Is Not Ready for Blockchain Technology ... Yet. 13 Aug. 2020, www.nextgov.com/ideas/2020/08/us-election-system-not-ready-blockchain-technology-yet/167609.
 Mearian, Lucas. “Why Blockchain-Based Voting Could Threaten Democracy.” Computerworld, Computerworld, 12 Aug. 2019, www.computerworld.com/article/3430697/why-blockchain-could-be-a-threat-to-democracy.html.
 Pirus, Benjamin. “ETH Scalability Isn't Going to Be an Issue Soon, Suggests Vitalik Buterin.” Cointelegraph, Cointelegraph, 30 June 2020, cointelegraph.com/news/eth-scalability-isn-t-going-to-be-an-issue-soon-vitalik-buterin-posits.
 McKay, Hollie. “First Presidential Vote Cast Using Blockchain Technology.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 16 Oct. 2020, www.foxnews.com/tech/first-presidential-vote-cast-using-blockchain-technology.
 Nakamoto, S. (2008) Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf
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