Within this century the use of digital technology has probably never been as high and as convenient as of today. People use the internet to access encyclopedias, look up food recipes and share pictures of their pets. It doesn’t matter whether you are at home, standing in an aisle at the grocery store or even flying on an airplane. Our devices provide unlimited access to modern technology and even somewhat changed the way we used to do things. For instance, it is now a matter of minutes, sometimes even seconds for us to buy some products online or quickly check our balance on banking accounts, whereas those things used to require you to at least leave the house for some time. In some cases, we even narrowed down our involvement for buying products to simply pushing down a button. In comparison to the older day methods for those actions this seems like a huge improvement. And it is. But maybe not in all regards.
While convenience and simplicity generally sound like things to aspire for, we should also look at what convenience is and more importantly what effects convenience can produce or whether there is any negative side to it. Our imagination rarely stops when we come up with ways how things could be improved through technology. We thrive towards making things as simple and convenient, making them accessible to as much people as possible or easy enough to get people to use them. With all this thrive to make things simple and convenient to use we might possibly be forgetting about whether they even need to or should be. And more so, are we missing out on anything for having them be convenient?
First, we should identify what convenience means in this context. For this article, convenience is being viewed as the amount of investments of resources including quantitative factors like time or money and qualitative factors, such as technical understanding, on the side of a user or actor while using an application or performing an action. Basically, it could be summarized to “How much does the user have to do for his goal?”.
From my point of view, there also exist stakeholder in convenience. While you could argue that the biggest stakeholder in convenience should be the users, since practically they are the ones that convenience should be designed around, to me the bigger stakeholder stands behind the intention to increase convenience on a specific topic.
To illustrate, let’s use Amazons dash button as an example. While you as the user might have the stake to easily refill your washing powder as soon as you notice it is empty, by simply pressing a button, amazon probably ultimately doesn’t truly care about you never having to wear dirty clothes. They most likely are simplifying ordering to generate more revenue. As ordering becomes easier, more people will order, or even prefer Amazon over other marketplaces because of that reason. At that point, you could speculate that cases exist, in which convenience will simply be viewed as a feature or unique selling point.
In contrast to that, convenience can also act as an enabler. The more simplistic designs are, the more people might engage in them and that engagement can be of other sorts than financial. Think of how easy it is, to go online and speak out about something you care for. Or how simple it is to engage in a community. I could imagine there are lots of good things happening in the real world, that would see more engagement if they were more convenient. Sure, not everything in life is convenient and it doesn’t have to be. But what about important things that could be made more convenient and benefit from it? Cases in which engagement through convenience is well appreciated. A perfect example for this would be an election. Would online elections increase engagement, and can we even assure that convenience in such a critical topic doesn’t lack the necessary security and safety features?
In this article, we are going to overlook the inconvenience in current voting systems and focus on some thoughts of implementing a secure online voting system, that would increase convenience in general elections and possible increase voting turnout.
Convenience through internet voting using blockchain technology – a realistic approach ?
Internet voting (i-voting) is mostly associated as a part of electronic voting (e-voting), which used to include any electronic tools assisting an election. This could range from electronic devices for taking in votes, to electronic vote counting machines that are set up at polling stations.¹
While i-voting might to some degree seem to also be an electronic assistance to voting, the main difference to e-voting would be that with i-voting, voters would not even have to show up at polling stations. The whole voting process would be accessible via the internet. In theory, i-voting sounds awesome and to most people it would clearly be a dream scenario, in which they can participate in their countries elections whilst not being required to make a physical appearance, for example while they are stationed overseas in the military. While theoretically i-voting appears to be a modern convenient way to cast your vote, it also raises a lot of issues, especially concerning the security of this whole process.
Despite security concerns, i-voting has been used in a few cases already. An example of currently deployed internet voting solutions would be the Estonian internet voting protocol that has being used in the Estonian election 2016. To understand which part of the i-voting scheme could be improved through blockchain technology, Ivo Kubjas in his paper “Using blockchain for enabling internet voting” took a look at how i-voting in the example of the Estonian election works and proposes possible uses of blockchain technology:
In Estonia, every citizen possesses a national ID-card, that holds a secret verification key. Every eligible voter v has a corresponding signing key skv to the verification key stored on the national ID-card. In addition to this, there is an encryption key ek to which there is also a corresponding decryption key dk. While the decryption key dk is shared securely between the members of the election committee, the encryption key ek is made public. When a voter v casts a ballot for a candidate c, the choice of the voter is encrypted using the encryption key ek and obtaining the ciphertext E=Enc(ek,c). This ciphertext is then signed, using the signing key and obtaining signed ciphertext S=Sign(skv,E). S is sent to the server and verified, using the verification key of the voter vkv (stored on the national ID card). If verified, the valid signed ciphertext is stored at the end of the elections. At the end of the elections, the stored signed ciphertexts for which there also exists a voting ballot (system allows both i-voting and traditional voting methods) are revoked. Then the remaining signed ciphertexts are stripped form their signatures, leaving the ciphertexts for candidates. This set of ciphertexts are transferred passively, for instance by using a DVD, to another computer where the decryption key dk is constructed from the members shares and the ciphertext is then decrypted.
Aspects to focus on
Now with a general understanding of how internet voting can be implemented, there are a few aspects that deserve a closer look, in order to figure out whether this concept of internet voting can function securely on a larger scale or if and how it can be improved.
In Estonia, the infrastructure provides national ID cards that possess a signing key, that is used to verify a voter’s eligibility. However, the process to verify a voter’s eligibility on a large scale without having the required infrastructure in place can we very challenging.
To manipulate election results, some individuals might even threaten or use violence to get other individuals to vote for their desired candidate or party. In order to prevent this from happening, the Estonian system allows for a recast of a ballot, either over the internet or a paper ballot. However, for this method to function accurately, the course of events related to the election, such as the start of elections, submission of a ballot or a change of the candidate list, must follow a strict consistent linearity. This might not be the case for procedural methods.
Distributed consensus for storing data
Similar to the pervious aspect, this resolves around consistency in data as well. Distributed storage in conventional form does not assure strict consistency of the data in different nodes, which makes it hard to the decide which node holds all the data in the case of conflicts.
Irreversibility of events
Even with backups being in use, the current system cannot guarantee that no ballot hasn’t been removed.
Holding a totally secure election via the internet is a complex process that involves a lot of security issues online and in the real world. Given the Estonian internet voting system as basis, the author proposes use for the blockchain technology in some respects.
The first proposal looks to solve the voter eligibility issue in in countries, that unlike Estonia don’t have the necessary infrastructure in place to implement a similar solution (e.g. in form of national ID with secret keys). An approach using blockchain technology would be to have every voter create a signing key pair usable with a digital coin, i.e. Bitcoin, which defines an address. To provide eligibility to a voter, some amount of coins could be transferred to the specific address. This approach would be publicly auditable, since the transactions in Bitcoin blockchain are public. Therefore, every voter can prove publicly whether they have been rejected of the legitimate right to vote.
Addressing strict linear entries, distributed consensus for storing data and irreversibility of events: According to the author, the use of blockchain itself would resolve these issues due to its nature. Blockchain technology provides strict linear entries because every entry is distributed to other nodes and validated through a hash function which is constantly changing as the data changes. Once validation is successful, assuring consistency of previous entries, every node will store the updated data and reject any further data that doesn’t pass the hash function successfully, thus also guaranteeing irreversibility of events.²
So far, we have looked at an implementation of i-voting without blockchain technology and some issues that could be resolved using a blockchain approach. To gain some insight on opportunities and benefits of internet voting using blockchain technology, it is helpful to look at some recent examples.
No full implementation of blockchain-based voting for a national election has occurred yet, however there is examples for corporate, city and national voting. For instance, in Russia, Moscow´s Active Citizen program started using blockchain in December 2017 for voting and making the results publicly auditable. The program allowed votes on diverse subjects, such as what color the seats in the new sporting arena should be. Even though this doesn’t deal with political offices, technology could be tailored for that purpose. Due to the lack of time of many Moscow residents, meetings have moved online since city officials believed that neighbors should have a convenient environment in which they have some influence. They also believed that blockchain would increase trust between citizens and government. To address this, the city of Moscow even commissioned an audit, conducted by the accounting firm PwC, that found no reason to be concerned for polls involving more than 300,000 votes.
Another example would be an Estonian technology company LVH Group, that allows shareholders who are Estonian citizens or Estonian e-residents to vote at LVH´s annual general meeting, using their verified national online ID to log in.
At the general elections March 2018 in Sierra Leone, a Swiss blockchain startup named Agora provided a partial tally of election results to have an independent count for comparison. However, this was rather considered a “use case “instead of a “full implementation”.
Benefits and Opportunities
Blockchain technology provides several benefits due to its nature alone. For instance, addressing voter tampering, blockchain creates cryptographically secure voting records, providing transparency, accuracy and security. It also provides anonymity while still being open for public inspection. Blockchain enabled voting might also improve engagement in voting, especially in cases in which people often are not willing to put in the effort to show up in person for certain issues. It might also provide a way in which establishing voter eligibility would become easier, resolving issues of unregistered voters to a certain degree, making a fairer election. Another opportunity would be the increase in speed with which votes are tallied. In Addition to that, blockchain technology in elections could eliminate ambiguities, while promoting greater transparency and clarity to voters, due to its feature of being publicly auditable, as mentioned before.
As with most modern technologies that are introduced to the public, blockchain enabled voting would require public trust and confidence, which might be difficult due to its complexity. Also, widespread access to internet and digital skills to use the system are requirements. In addition to that, blockchain technology has insufficient observations to determine a blockchain-based platform’s scalability. Concerning authorities, blockchain enabled voting might shift power away from central actors such as electoral authorities and government agencies, which might face resistance from political leaders who benefit from the current situation.³
Regarding the introduction to this article, the main question remains whether convenience could be improved while maintaining high security standards. In an ideal scenario blockchain-enabled online voting could massively improve elections in general. On one hand, convenience might enable more voters and improve a democratic system by aggregating more participants. On the other hand, blockchain technology provides improved security aspects over conventional voting systems, such as transparency, irreversibility of events, lower possibility of voter tampering, improved processes to assure voter eligibility. Focusing on those aspects, it seems like a good decision to move towards blockchain-enabled online voting in the future. However, it is vastly important to understand that general elections as such are a complicated matter. It often can´t be solved just focusing on the technological part of it since there are more stakeholders in elections and often even more real-world problems that can not all be solved through technology. To me, it seems realistic that a few implementations of blockchain-enabled voting will be done in the future, from which more information resolving around this topic could be gathered and evaluated. In general, blockchain-enabled technology provides several benefits that could be translated to various use cases, exceeding online voting.
¹ “Switzerland’s new legislation on internet voting”. electoralpractice.ch.
Archived from the original on 2015-04-02. Retrieved 2019-02-05.
² Ivo Kubjas, Using blockchain for enabling internet voting, January 6, 2017
³ Nir Kshetri and Jeffrey Voas, Blockchain-Enabled E-Voting, JULY/AUGUST
2018 | IEEE SOFTWARE