Originally designed to democratize power within the financial system, Bitcoin’s blockchain technology is now playing a role in the area of democracy itself.
Despite receiving much attention, online voting adoption has yet to take off meaningfully worldwide, amid concerns that existing platforms are vulnerable to fraud, corruption and sabotage. Last year a team accredited to observe the 2013 municipal elections in Estonia – the only country to run Internet voting on a wide scale – revealed that they observed election officials downloading key software over insecure Internet connections, typing PINs and passwords in view of cameras, and preparing election software on insecure PCs.
Norway also canceled trials of e-voting systems in local and national elections, concluding that voters’ fears about their votes becoming public could undermine democratic processes.
There are, however, increasing examples of political organizations and technology startups experimenting with secure digital voting systems based on the use of Bitcoin’s blockchain technology. Last year Denmark’s Liberal Alliance became the first political party to vote using a blockchain-based system for its internal elections. Similar systems have since been adopted in Norway and Spain and the movement is gathering momentum in the United States.
“There is a common misconception that voting cannot be done online in a secure way. However, the introduction of blockchain technology is changing the conversation,” Adam Ernest, CEO of Virginia-based FollowMyVote – an organization committed to developing an online open source, transparent voting platform – explains.
Just as Bitcoin users make transactions by sending the digital currency to the recipient’s digital wallet, blockchain voting systems involve creating wallets for each candidate or option in an election. All voters are then allocated a digital “coin” that represents one vote, which they can cast by sending their “coin” to the wallet of their choice.
As in a bitcoin transaction, the entire process is recorded in the blockchain public ledger, meaning that unlike most current elections, a voter can verify that his or her vote was actually counted.
While the lack of anonymity in the Bitcoin system is a drawback for adoption in voting platforms, the use of anonymizing software can help ensure that voters’ identities are not revealed.
The New York-based V-Initiative is working on delivering open-source, fraud-proof, fully anonymous digital voting solutions based on the blockchain and uses zero-knowledge proof cryptography allied with IP masking software such as the “TOR” program to safeguard voter anonymity.
For many digital voting advocates, the end goal is “liquid democracy” – a combination of direct and indirect democracy whereby all citizens have the potential to vote on every issue but can dynamically delegate some or all of these votes to others that they feel are better qualified to vote.
Ernest notes that this concept is gaining much traction in countries such as Norway, Iceland and Germany. FollowMyVote, in partnership with BitShares and Cryptonomex, Inc., is working on a voting platform that is integrated directly with the BitShares 2.0 Smartchain that supports this use case.
Despite the positive reception in parts of Europe, Ernest is quick to point out that a number of obstacles remain along the road toward a fully digital democratic system.
“Pushing for provably honest elections in the U.S. and abroad, we have a tremendous amount of money and influence stacked against us,” he said.
As a result, FollowMyVote is changing its approach. Instead of trying to lobby election officials or legislators whom they feel have no incentive to improve the voting process in the U.S., it is preparing to launch an educational marketing campaign targeted directly at the voter in an attempt to get them to lobby the government.
Ernest says he is confident that once voters are better informed about the benefits of a blockchain-based online voting system – from convenience and cost-effectiveness to security and transparency – governments will have little choice but to adopt these systems.
“I firmly believe that in the future, voting will be done from our smartphones and our votes will be stored securely on the blockchain,” he said.
Photo London elections – e-count scanners / photopin