Blockchain for Democracy

Devon Sydney
10 min readDec 13, 2017

A Thought Experiment: How blockchain technology could be leveraged for secure and easy voting in any election, with benefit to society.

Blockchain may sound like a technical and scary technology, but you don’t need to know how it works, rather what its advantages are. A blockchain is a decentralized and distributed ledger used to record transactions across many computers. In the context of this discussion, each transaction would be a citizen’s vote. The advantages of blockchains for voting are :

  • votes are confidential
  • votes are verifiable
  • votes are secure
  • votes are immutable (can’t be changed)

Why?

Today elections have many issues:

  • voter apathy and fatigue
  • difficulty voting (work schedule, travel, health conditions, confusion, etc.)
  • voter fraud
  • voter suppression
  • security flaws in voting machines
  • conspiracy theories, propaganda and fear around the election process

As will be seen, blockchain-based voting systems could greatly improve these problems and lead to a more trusted democratic system.

‘Etheria’ — Land of Nerdy Elections

The imaginary country Etheria is a country of technology forward citizens who use blockchain technology to keep their elections free and fair. You are a proud citizen of Etheria and election season is approaching. This will be your first time voting, and you are excited to take part!

The Etherian Flag

Based on Etheria’s Constitution, you and your fellow citizens elect a new government every September 30 at midnight. You know that voting is handled by a blockchain, which contains a record of all votes for a particular election. Each election has its own blockchain.

This example is meant to illustrate the concept, and so Etheria has a certain kind of democracy suited to them. The specific implementation of blockchain technology could be made to suit the needs of any electoral system. The details of any implementation will have pros and cons that must be weighed by each society.

Voter Registration

You visit the voter registration website and sign up to be a validated voter in your region. This requires some measure of proof (proofs of citizenship, identity, age and address). You photograph and upload all the information through the secure site and enter the additional required information (email address, cell phone number, home address). It is explained these are needed to make some of the features of this voting method possible. All in all, it takes about 10 minutes to sign up.

Now that you’re registered, you receive a user identity with rights to submit a vote to any future blockchain. This is a similar type of identity as a login to your bank.

Some citizens are not comfortable signing up online. Elections Ether maintains a physical location in each region where citizens are assisted in signing up, and has additional services where representatives visit people at their homes and help them sign up (for people with mobility issues).

Blockchain Control

After registration, you are shown a short video showing how the election works. The rules (i.e. code) behind blockchain elections are controlled by Elections Ether (EE), an independent, non-partisan agency who directly report to the government of Etheria. They are a special type of entity with powers to:

  • validate new voter account registrations and close accounts
  • trigger an election by publicly launching a blockchain
  • deal with any administrative issues such as a fraudulent voting accounts or a candidate becoming disqualified
  • handle the master encryption key for the blockchain

EE is required to openly publish the code behind the blockchain and any changes within it, to prove to citizens it is always representing the Constitution. Automated public notifications are built into the core of the codebase itself to eliminate the possibility of secret unwarranted changes.

The blockchains are permissioned, with the participants being a diversity of legal entities in Etheria. These participants include political parties, universities, charitable organizations and corporate entities. The specific rules for becoming a participant are defined in the Constitution. Once published, blockchains are distributed through this network and the entities take part in the recording, validation and confirmation of the election results. This means that EE (or any singular entity) does NOT have control of actual blockchains and cannot modify them without collusion of the network.

All citizens can view the blockchain at any time. Since this is your first election, you download last year’s election blockchain out of curiosity. You see that the results match what was reported, and you can click in and see right down to the individual vote level what happened.

Trust, Security and Privacy

One of your biggest concerns in the past was trust. Of course, the EE websites used to maintain profile information and to submit votes are of the highest levels of security, with all of the security features you rely on when logging into your bank, such an encrypted communications.

However, since this is an especially sensitive use case, multi-factor authentication is mandated. A text message code is sent to your phone every time you log in or perform an action in the system, from changing an address to voting itself. If a user does not have access to a smartphone (increasingly rare), they may still vote in person with ID at an EE location.

You also learn that every time a user makes an action, an automated audit system is triggered, where confirmation is sent back to you. This includes an email, text message, and physical paper mailing sent to your home the next day. In this way, you and every citizen can be confident that if their identity or votes are compromised they will know about it very quickly and can notify EE.

Any votes submitted to the blockchain do not contain your personal information, but rather your personal user hash, basically a scrambled up version of your identity that can’t be used to discover your real information. EE can still tie back votes to particular users, but this is only done in cases of suspected voter fraud, and the databases are kept completely separate. In this way, the blockchain itself maintains complete individual secrecy of voting.

Election Process

It is now September 1, and EE triggers an election by creating a new blockchain. All citizens are notified that voting is now open.

You log in to the voting app to see who the candidates are in their region, and take it upon yourself to educate yourself on their platforms. You can only submit a vote for candidates in your region. You can can submit a vote at any time, and also change your vote at any time.

Etheria’s version of the blockchain system also has a particular important feature. The vote choices themselves in the blockchain are encrypted by a master key, which is generated before the election. This means that during September, although votes are being collected, there is no way to see the ongoing results of the election, or know who is winning. This is built into Etheria’s democracy to de-politicize the election process itself and reduce the fantastical new media coverage of results, which in itself could influence voting.

As per Constitution rules, no changes are allowed after midnight on September 29. Any early votes will be ‘locked in’ at that time, and any votes on September 30 will be final. In Etheria, usually 70% of citizens have voted by election day.

At midnight on September 30, voting on this blockchain is no longer possible, and as soon as the final blockchain validation computations are completed, the master encryption key is applied to the entire blockchain, meaning the election results are instantly visible. Every vote (without personal identifying information) and the winners are now known transparently and the results are reported by media outlets. Any individual can also look them up directly in the blockchain if they desire.

Notifications are also triggered by email, text message and mail to each citizen, whether they voted or not. If a citizen receives a notification that was not their real vote, they are required to contact EE for a fraud investigation.

The new leaders take power on November 1, which gives citizens plenty of time to report any fraud, and EE time to make any necessary final updates to the blockchain as required. Fraud is increasingly rare in this system, and has never come close to influencing an election result, but is dealt with swiftly and seriously.

Trusted Democracy

You and the citizens of Etheria trust and value the blockchain based democracy. Voter turnouts are above 98% and citizens take the responsibility seriously. They feel empowered when they vote and do not question the results of elections. The power of propaganda, gerrymandering, fear and mis-information are not pervasive in Etheria’s society. You go to sleep confident you took part and your voice was heard.

Possibilities of a Blockchain Voting System

As the thought experiment above shows, many democratic features can be achieved by a blockchain-based system:

  • voter fraud can be easy to discover and easy to reverse, reducing its likelihood
  • lazyness or voter apathy factors can be reduced, with voting possible from anywhere at any time
  • the importance of election day can be reduced through easily available early voting
  • reduced cost of elections and campaigns
  • security and transparency to citizens on voting
  • automated counting of ballots, easy auditing of results
  • personal secrecy of voting can be maintained
  • if a candidate is disqualified during the election, citizens could re-vote
  • news spectacle and entertainment factor can be reduced
  • instant results
  • a system with mandatory voting requirements could be implemented (although the risks of this should be assessed, likely balanced with a ‘none of the above’ choice or candidate ranking)
  • eco benefits due to paper free options (unless you want a paper audit)
  • enormous datasets that can be analyzed for trends on how the population feels, regional differences, and may be used to improve how businesses run, where certain services are needed, and allow the government and political parties to keep deeply in touch with its citizens and their desires

Pushbacks — Why Not?

Corruption

The bigger barrier will be that this is a major overhaul of democracy, with many ensconced players having vested interests against a system with empowered and engaged citizens. This makes it even more important to fight for, but likely means any solution would have to be built with collaboration and support from both the public and the existing government.

Lack of Trust

Many barriers to implementation of a system like this can be lumped under ‘lack of trust’. This could manifest as conspiracy theories around the corrupt governments and central elections body, illegitimate concerns due to lack of understanding of the blockchain technology and outright rejection based on partisan propaganda.

These barriers may be mitigated by education of the populace, the inherent features of a blockchain-based system, and additional targeted features tailored to each society’s needs (such as transparency of code, automated notifications, etc).

Call to Action

If this thought experiment resonates with you, there are a couple things that can be done:

  • As a citizen, call on your government to implement a blockchain-based voting system. They are not incentivized to do this on their own and I believe this will only come after strong pushes from the public. This will be especially important if you feel your region (city, state, country) has an appetite for a system like this, as case studies will help decision makers in other regions.
  • As a technologist, write up the specifics of a blockchain-based voting system for a specific region. This can help in selling the message to decision makers. There are many ways that this can manifest and my example only shows a single model.

Bonus Thought: Enables Direct Democracy

Note: the pros and cons of a direct democracy (or any style of democracy) are huge discussions and can fill books, so this is simplified for the overall point.

I purposely kept the discussion focused on a representative democracy, where candidates are elected to represent citizens. All of the theory could equally be applied to a direct or pseudo-direct democracy.

Imagine Etheria now as a pseudo-direct democracy. There is still an elected government who handle the running of the country (all the boring stuff) and complex decisions that are too difficult for non-expert single citizens to understand (major economic policy decisions, war, etc.). The citizens recognize that the best way to deal with this is to elect representatives and hold them to high standards.

However, the citizens want a say on many specific personal issues (such as LGBT rights, animal treatment, gun rights, arts spending, etc.) and local issues (such as how a park is built in their neighbourhood, whether a new sports stadium gets a big tax cut, etc.). In these cases, a monthly blockchain is triggered with a number of issues, and the citizens can vote on each of those issues. Regional issues are restricted to the region they live in, and general issues are filtered by issue type (e.g. gun control). Citizens can ‘opt out’ of issue types if they have no opinion one way or another and then are never asked to vote on those issues.

Each political party includes a debate style overview of their views on the issue at hand. This argument is fact checked by other parties to ensure no misleading or highly politicized information is included, and in this way the voter has a trusted cross-partisan source of information on the issue, without the media hype.

Inspiration

This idea for this post was inspired by Dan Carlin’s Common Sense podcast. In particular, the two episodes below brought up the power of decentralized idea making to improve our society:

Comments and feedback are welcome and appreciated!

Further Reading

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Devon Sydney

Tech entrepreneur, with an aim to change the energy industry.