An Indian voter wearing a mask of Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends a political campaign ahead of India’s general election. (Biju Boro/India Today)
Jelsyna Chacko, ILS Law College
In the times we live in, it is highly imperative that one keeps a constant tab on the ongoing state of affairs to ensure that the many rights guaranteed by the law of the land are not being slowly infringed upon and manipulated by the ones in power, in whom we place our trust in. More so, in the wake of a global pandemic, India being one of the few countries adversely affected, there is little to no clarity on how democratic processes that essentially involve one’s physical presence, will pan out. With much being said on the effects of COVID-19 to linger on for another decade, it is only wise to start exploring and weighing the many possibilities that exist so as to smoothly transition to a new normal. This being said, technological shifts are an almost inevitable reality, the tentacles of which seem to touch upon every aspect of human life – from businesses to supply chain management to contact tracing, disaster relief and insurance to name a few.
In the course of this article, I would like to delve on the impact of this pandemic on democratic processes and more specifically on the modes in which election processes could evolve – so as to effectively ensure ‘free and fair’ elections guaranteed to the citizens of India and thereby rekindle faith and belief in democracy – by ensuring better voter turnout due to technology enabled voting systems.
Overview of the Conventional Voting Methods
Having transitioned from the traditional paper ballot system to Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), at one point seemed like a major upgrade for the betterment of the society at large. This is mainly because paper ballots were extremely demanding in terms of storage, transportation and time. Apart from this, it was also found out that paper ballots can be interfered with and the results altered as per the influence of the political parties. However, with the passage of time and after several elections, disputes regarding the tamperability of EVMs arose. Although the stand of the Election Commission remained firm regarding the impossibility of tampering with EVMS, research and deliberations on this topic have confirmed that these are very much tamperable and can very well lead to altered results favoring political parties that have close ties with the manufacturers of components of the EVMs.
A petition by Subramanian Swamy in the SC in 2013 held that Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPAT) was an indispensable requirement for free and fair elections, thereby making VVPAT intrinsic to the very basic structure of the Constitution.
In the meantime, the Election Commission has also been considering introducing mobile phone assisted voting with the help of Blockchain Technology.
Introducing State of the Art Technology, Minimizing Shortcomings
Clearly, the traditional modes of voting due to its vulnerability to human interference have proven to be tamperable and so – the need to introduce new methodologies to eliminate these shortcomings was felt across the globe. In a digital age, mobile assisted voting with the help of a fault-resistant technology like the blockchain, came to be thought of as a crucial game changer.
BCT is a long chain of blocks containing pieces of information stored with the help of nodes in the network. These blocks are linked together and recorded in a widely distributed database. Hacking one block would require not only the key for that specific block but also the keys for the adjoining blocks as they are all closely connected to each other. This means that infiltrating a blockchain would need the unique key of every single block on the chain, making it impossible to alter information once it gets stored. This attribute of the BCT renders it a safe and secure technology for voting since it leaves no room for malicious transactions to take place and therefore no chance of altering votes by individuals with influence at any cost. ‘Transactions’ in the context of voting simply implies the votes being cast and stored in the Blockchain.
Several startups like Votem and Voatz have taken the initiative of developing blockchain based voting systems. Voatz is supportive only on recently manufactured smartphone models from Apple, Samsung and Google which have security features like fingerprint and facial recognition which aid in voting through BCT. Modern smartphones allow highly secure and encrypted transactions to be conducted on the internet. Votes cast are stored on a permission blockchain controlled by various stakeholders like the Secretary of State so as to ensure tamper resistance and accuracy.
Blockchain – a Safe Bet or a Shaky Ground?
As has been elaborated above, introducing blockchain technology in mobile assisted voting can prove to be a major breakthrough in ensuring accurate voting processes. However, the underlying concern behind this would be the trust people place on a completely new election methodology, especially given that adoption of the BCT is still at its nascent stages. Not just this, but BCT assisted mobile voting requiring the latest gadgets due to its functions of face recognition, fingerprint verification, may not be within the reach of every individual. Although BCT, in theory, seems to be extremely promising, educating the masses as also election officials on this may take some time and effort and planning well in advance for its successful adoption.
Although theoretically and practically BCT is said to be tamper-free and unshakable, it is not completely impossible to hack into the network. However, the resources, time and effort required to conduct a hack would be immense, making it seem unfeasible to engage in the same.
Apart from this, certain shortcomings of BCT in voting have been pointed out in a recent report in the US. The report says that BCT opens a way for additional security vulnerabilities like – if a voter’s device has malware, there are chances of the vote being altered even before it reaches the blockchain. Elections being essentially centralized requiring election administrators to define the contents of the ballots, identify the list of eligible voters and establish the duration of voting, blockchains are decentralized. Safe and secure voting mandates that these operations including the resolving ballot issues, managing vote tabulation and announcing results be performed verifiably. For an individual to verify the vote cast on blockchain, other software will be required to examine these and if this software is corrupted, the exercise of verifying becomes a redundant and meaningless endeavor. Further, the blockchain being dependent on the discretion of miners or stakeholders before votes get stored in it, have the power to suppress votes. Therefore, consensus among the miners/nodes may supersede the consensus among the public, which may lead to altered outcomes.
Apart from this, it is important to note that blockchain as the sole technology may not address all the concerns that go behind providing secure voting processes. There may be a need to accompany this technology with various other voting mechanisms such as the end-to-end voting which would provide for the necessary cryptographic tools so as to ensure cast ballots are anonymised so as to prevent coercion and vote selling.
With regards to the cost of blockchain assisted voting, like any other new method of voting, initially the cost may be high, however, several sources say that once the initial overheads are taken care of, it will prove to be the most cost-effective means of casting votes.
Therefore, while much needs to be done before introducing BCT in voting, it is worth diving deep down into the many benefits it could offer. The many technical and practical concerns need to be taken into consideration and viable solutions provided so as to make this a reality.
Scenarios Across the Globe
The trend of using blockchain in voting is fast catching up across the globe and several countries are resorting to it for their elections. Sierra Leone was the first to use BCT to verify votes in the election process. Agora, a Swiss Blockchain Company provided the service. Each vote was stored in a joint private blockchain network accessible only by election officials who facilitated the election process. West Virginia was the first State in the US to resort to blockchain assisted mobile voting. The town of Zug, Switzerland tested out a blockchain based voting system too.
The Japanese city of Tsukuba attempted to follow suit as well. They connected “My Number” (their government identification number) to a blockchain solution that prohibits votes from being manipulated while also providing the comfort of voting from home. Mayor Tatsuo Igarashi commended the ease of using the system regardless of the perceived complexity and confusion.
However, it was noted that the voting system was limited to matters of social betterment and contribution projects as there is a general apprehension among the administration to adapt to technology on matters essentially taken care of by individuals. The underlying concern is that BCT still remains a foreign concept to many even in Japan.
When it comes to voting, the ground realities faced were that either people do not remember their passwords when trying the system out, or the voters found it difficult to confirm that they voted successfully. However, there are means to overcome these challenges faced and the same were thrashed out by the Mayor and Prof Kazunori Kawamura from Tohoku University. For the first problem faced, they suggest providing a seed recovery phase which doesn’t allow them to proceed forward until they have demonstrated what is written down. Another way of looking at the password dilemma would be – using the password already used for other services or using the unique identification number to log in and cast the vote.
The second problem is the inability to verify the status of the vote being cast. To this, they suggest developing a tokenized approach which would require citizens to opt-in a voting session. With the click of a button, the individual is given a single-use voting token to verify that their vote is recorded correctly.
Thailand was also one among the few countries that adopted blockchain for voting. It was developed by the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (NECTEC) to allow voters to vote on blockchain based voting systems for national, provincial or community elections, as well as for business votes. Italy also adopted BCT for their voting processes so as to provide a means for their citizens residing across the globe to be able to contribute to the elections.
Blockchain Voting Systems – Potential vs Persisting Flaws
In India, even before the pandemic spread its reach freezing the nation of daily functioning, the Election Commission of India initiated collaborating with the Indian Institute of Technology to develop a blockchain system for voting. The ball started rolling keeping in mind the many limitations posed by conventional voting systems such as – inability of persons to participate in the process due to working, studying or living away from their hometowns where they are originally registered. On matters of security concerns, it is reasonable to foresee some malfunction as may be common for any technology, however, there will be no question around “tamperability” of the system due to the immutability of BCT. Telangana is playing a proactive role in exploring the use of this technology in voting and reported that BCT could create a practice of “tamper-proof voting records”. However, this will garner public trust and traction only once this is tried and tested on ground.
In the US, Security experts raise concerns on the vulnerability of any internet-based election system regardless of the underlying infrastructure. Recently, The American Association for the Advancement of Science’ Centre for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues expressed their doubts in this regard to the U.S. governors, secretaries of state and state election directors. This was primarily keeping in view the possibility of there existing malware on the voter’s device opening room for server penetration attacks, denial-of-service attacks and other disruptions which have the potential to infect computers in the elections office that handle and count ballots. Another theory brewing against use of BCT for voting is that there is a possibility for mischievous foreign governments compromising an online vote without breaking the core cryptographic algorithms. Such as by hacking into systems that governments use to maintain voter credentials. They could possibly bribe election officials for copies of voter’s information which they could then use for sending voters phishing emails to trick them into revealing their identity or simply trick them into thinking a vote has been cast on their behalf while in actuality they haven’t. However, these continue to remain speculations and unless an effective trial has not taken place, it is futile to rule out the possibilities that BCT could bring to the table.
Overall, it may be safe to say that BCT in voting processes has the potential to rebuild a robust democracy, however the many threats that come associated with it are not to be overlooked. The many considerations that come along with introducing new technology in matters of utmost public and governmental concern need to be taken care of. One may look at the many concerns and speculations raised by countries across the globe, in positive light, so as to further build on the technology holistically to ensure safety mechanisms in place. Apart from this, educating the masses as also the public officials on this seemingly complex technology is also highly imperative, so as to mitigate the scepticism that inevitably follows an innovation.
Jelsyna Chacko is a student at ILS Law College, Pune. You can find her on LinkedIn.
Photo Credits: Biju Boro/India Today
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