The use of technology in election voting is a complicated and difficult topic. On one hand, simplifying the voting process and making it more accessible for all citizens is the vital goal that many policy makers and innovators are striving towards. On the other hand, challenges surrounding security, privacy, and transparency are immense and prove to be a formidable adversary. According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, there is currently “no known technology that can guarantee the secrecy, security, and verifiability of a marked ballot transmitted over the Internet.” Nevertheless, research into voting technology has continued, and the increasingly digital nature of modern society has only further propelled discussions. From the blockchain to End to End Verifiable Internet Voting, this article will explore the ideas and perspectives surrounding the future of election methods.
One proposal sees the utilization of blockchain expand beyond cryptocurrency. Blockchain is a Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), meaning it records and distributes information on a decentralized network without editing it. Hearing this, it sounds like the perfect fit for online voting as one of the biggest challenges for transferring the voting process to an online platform is the concern of hackers and cybersecurity. Since blockchain integrates “cryptography into software” and prevents data from being altered, it offers protection from a virtual manipulation of votes (Boring). Perianne Boring writes in the Chamber of Digital Commerce, “Votes tracked through a blockchain provide for a quicker, tamper-proof way of counting votes, which could lead to greater voter participation, better ballot security, and at lower cost.” This process actually became reality back in 2018 when West Virginia allowed overseas workers to “vote via the blockchain network which will distribute and store the votes in 16 different locations” (Boring). West Virginia stated that this experiment was a success — with 144 individuals from 31 countries successfully submitting their ballots — and planned to use it once again in the 2020 election (this plan was later dropped in favor of paper ballots due to concerns from experts). However, the actual results of the experiment are still murky as “the state and the company aren’t sharing the basic information experts say is necessary to properly evaluate whether the blockchain voting pilot was actually a resounding success” (Slate). This lack of transparency in their report — and in the virtual app they used — has caused alarm in many election technology professionals.
This skepticism over the use of blockchain in voting is a shared sentiment among many. In an article by the nonprofit organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, they write that, despite the immutable nature of blockchain, it still is “vulnerable to many [...] security flaws [...] such as the potential for malware to alter votes on a voter’s local device before the ballot is transmitted and the lack of secret ballots” (AAAS). Thus, opposers argue that the use of blockchain could put the country at risk of undetectable election failures and unreliable results.
A more complex, but perhaps more secure, method of voting would be through the implementation of end to end verifiable internet voting systems, or E2E-VIV for short. E2E-VIVs allow voters to “check that the system recorded their votes correctly, check that the system included their votes in the final tally, and count the recorded votes and double-check the announced outcome of the election” (U.S. Vote Foundation). From the beginning setup phase of the election to the ending tallying and auditing phases, each step must be verified and have checks in place to maintain their accuracy. E2E-VIVs directly addresses the concerns of internet voting by making the process secure (maintaining the integrity of election and voter data; resist large-scale attacks on its own infrastructure as well as on the devices of all voters; allow only eligible voters to vote), usable (accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities), and transparent (voters must trust the system and be given evidence that their votes were counted correctly). The value of transparency is especially important as the principle behind this Internet voting system is that citizens are able to visibly check that the platform is performing accurately.
Considering the extensive amount of precaution and consideration that must go into implementing an E2E-VIV, it is still yet unclear whether it’s possible to build a system that fulfills every requirement. Technical battles are only the beginning; legal and public acceptance are obstacles that also need to be accounted for. Nevertheless, development towards a functional, accessible, and secure online voting system could drastically alter society as we know it.
Overall, the future of voting technology is still uncertain. Unlike other sectors that have adopted digital platforms and welcomed innovation, the election process is one that cannot be put into an area of risk. Nevertheless, experts will continue to develop and push towards the goal of greater accessibility, and it will be interesting to ponder how our elections could change in the years to come.