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20 January 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 8:53am

How blockchain technology could support democracy

In the wake of a bitter US election and as votes become more vulnerable to dispute, the technology behind Bitcoin could offer a more secure and open democratic process.

By simon chapman

The extraordinary spectacle of a pro-Trump mob invading the US Capitol on 6 January was the work of a myriad of economic and social forces. Essentially, this violent attack stems from a breakdown in trust – in politicians, in the electoral process, and in the mainstream media, whom Trump excoriated for its alleged peddling of “fake news”. While the protestors were disorganised and, like a dog chasing a car, did not know what to do once they had breached the interior of the Capitol, they could have created constitutional chaos had they stolen and destroyed the contents of the ballot box containing the confirmation of the electoral college votes.

[see also: American civil war]

While the broader cultural forces that drove the mob are beyond the scope of this comment, the idea that the election was “stolen” – though it has been refuted in every case the Trump campaign has brought – was clearly compelling to his support base. Many of these claims focused on the paper-based voting process, a technology that has been in use since Roman times. I believe this argument could have been eliminated in advance, had a voting solution based on the rapidly developing field of blockchain technology been used.

A blockchain is a publicly available database, maintained by a network of computers that validates new entries on the system. Because it is public, and verified by every computer on the network, the database does not rely on an intermediary, such as a government or a bank, to ensure it is trusted by its users.

Instead, trust is distributed across the network’s computers, or “miners”. Every miner performs computational work and compares its results – “proof of work” – to the computation that every other node has done. These verified results are published as “blocks”, forming blockchains. Miners are economically rewarded for verifying truthful results, and if they try to corrupt the outcome, they are economically penalised. Every verified block in that blockchain’s history, back to the first computation, is available for all to access.

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Blockchains are not immune to attack – no system is. If a bad actor can take control of a majority of computers on the network, they can edit blocks as they please. This type of “51 per cent attack” has been used by hackers to rerun tens of thousands of transactions made using Ethereum Classic, a cryptocurrency with a market capitalisation of over $1bn. The technologies that people use to access blockchain technology, such as the encrypted “wallets” in which access keys are stored, the exchanges on which cryptocurrencies are traded and the marketplaces in which they are spent, have their own security challenges. However, the sheer scale of computing power required to take control of the largest blockchain – Bitcoin – has prevented anyone from doing so in its 12-year existence. 

An election conducted using blockchain technology would require that each voter be given a secure and unique identifier or “key” to access a “smart contract” – an agreement written in code – which they would use to vote without having to attend a polling station.

Those without internet access could cast their paper ballot in the usual manner, and officials would transfer these votes to the blockchain. The process would be cheaper and more efficient than a paper-based system, and the results would be nearly instantaneous. If the system could be made formally secure, the recording of these votes would be immutable and verifiable to anyone with access to the internet. I believe this would make any subsequent chants of “Stop the Steal” irrelevant.

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Blockchain elections have already been trialled in several US jurisdictions, and there is clearly work to be done. In the 2018 US midterm elections, West Virginia used a platform called Voatz to allow internet voting for a small number of people, and other states such as Oregon have since followed suit. Security researchers from MIT later identified serious flaws in the system, and other trials such as the 2019 Moscow election have shown the system to be vulnerable to attack. However, Estonia, a pioneer of online voting, has executed several elections since 2015 without any major controversy. Any system needs to be tested extensively to show that it can preserve the integrity of the votes cast and the secrecy of those ballots. This does not mean the principle of allowing better access to more openly verifiable voting is to be abandoned.

[see also: Are cryptocurrencies real money?]

To use blockchain for voting would also help bring its benefits to other areas, such as decentralised finance – or “de-fi’ – which promises secure direct lending verified by a blockchain, democratising access to currency and financial services beyond the purview of the traditional “high priests of finance” such as banks. This creates opportunities for, say, a farmer in Africa who does not have access to the banking system, to receive credit and make payments from a smartphone.

Charitable contributions could also be made directly to those in need, bypassing the sometimes gilded bureaucracies in the developed world and corrupt government recipients in the developing world. Free-range chicken farmers in China are using radio-frequency tags on their chickens that record the animals’ range of movement on a blockchain, verifying the animals’ free-range status and enabling the farmers to charge higher prices. Musicians are developing blockchain-based music distribution services that give artists more control over how their songs and associated data circulate among fans and other musicians. In the current pandemic, Britain’s NHS is currently working with a blockchain platform to monitor the temperatures of Covid-19 vaccines while in cold storage.

[see also: Bitcoin and the money myth]

Some of the smartest people on the planet are currently working on blockchain technology and its applications. It is in its early days still, and the fringes of the blockchain community remain something of a Wild West. But the potential is there to repatriate power from the elites to the people, and in doing so, maybe even prevent a future electoral disaster in the US.

Simon Chapman is an observer of the intersection of technology, governments and finance, based in Toronto, Canada.