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Could blockchain have prevented the 2020 US elections´ fiasco?

By Andrea Bianconi

That 2020 US Presidential elections would be tight and a nail biter was to be expected. At least by those who had a real feel for American politics and who took critically the mainstream media propaganda and the sponsored polls for a blue landslide.

But few would have expected to see such a quantity of alleged errors, miscalculations, technical glitches, irregularities or plain fraud accusations that are now surfacing. This will keep the elections in a judicial limbo for the next few weeks — despite the democrats having already officially claimed the victory — and at least until December 14 when the US Electoral College is due to meet to vote the new President.

Regardless of what the final verdict on those elections will be, one thing is certain, the US electoral system (and its democracy) need a fixing. Urgently. What type of fixing is needed is complex to say, but the first question that comes to mind is whether the blockchain could have at least brought some transparency and certainty into these elections.

Paper ballot systems are still the norm and for a good reason, they are the safest and time tested option. I still remember the first time I voted in Italy back in the ´80s. People showed up at poll locations with their IDs. Paper ballots were tabulated by hand in a paper register by a commission of several people sitting around the same table, all working together and each supervising what the other was doing. This happened simultaneously in thousands of locations around the country. More or less it is still done the same way today. It certainly looks archaic compared to Estonia´s internet based voting system but still works beautifully and the risks for fraud are minimal. The benefits of technological improvement therefore should be carefully weighted against its risks.

Technology can certainly help in speeding up the process and in increasing electoral participation, but the risks for fraud then scale up massively.

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While in the latest US elections there have been also accusations of paper ballots being illegally casted by non residents or by people already passed away, this remains a fairly easy fraud to spot with a limited capability to damage the whole process because of its reduced scale. It is rather different when technology is at work. Just imagine if the allegations that a “technical glitch” in the voting machines in one Michigan county has transferred 6000 Trump votes to Biden prove to be correct. The same software has been used in additional 47 counties only in the state of Michigan. Who knows nationwide.

This technologist joint paper published in August 2019 and co-authored by various researchers-including Chicago and Georgetown Universities – describes how the researchers have effectively hacked the most modern voting machines used in American elections.

The reluctance to increase technology uses in the electoral process is therefore understandable and fully justified. Even technologists are treading very cautiously.

But some might say: true software have bugs, back doors, data transmissions can be hacked, servers can be penetrated, but the Bitcoin protocol has been working flawlessly for more than 10 years. It is the most resilient and time tested open source technology for decentralized data/value transfer existing today. So why not use the blockchain then? After all it might well bring benefits to electoral systems.

The likely answer is yes and no.

“Although blockchains’ most prominent uses are monetary, there is no reason they cannot store other types of data — and votes would seem an excellent fit. An ideal voting system resists corruption by authorities or hackers and empowers citizens and auditors to agree on an election’s outcome. Conveniently, auditable consensus among parties who do not fully trust one another is exactly what blockchains offer”, writes the Scientific American.

Some potential advantages of blockchain voting technology could be:

  • direct verification that the vote was cast as intended and immediate detection of any tampering.
  • governments and independent parties can audit and confirm the vote results stored on the blockchain with transparency.
  • enough nodes decentralization makes it much harder or altogether impossible for malicious parties to hack the system compared to a centralized system.
  • blockchains could serve as a foundational infrastructure for casting, tracking, and counting votes

At least in theory.

But blockchains are databases and they work in a complex environment in conjunction with other technologies. For instance, in an imaginary blockchain based voting system citizens will have to be issued digital identities (like Estonia does). Then citizens would need a digital wallet to store the voting-tokens which will be then cast. Even if the blockchain remains the safest place to store the token-votes once tallied and to carry out a transparent audit of the votes, all the preceding phases are very much at risk of the most common cyberthreats, such as malwares, DoS attacks, hacking, theft of digital identities, etc. Same as with Bitcoin, the hacking happens on your computer, on your handy wallet or on your crypto exchange account, not on the blockchain. All the above without even considering additional complexities such as the basic characteristics of the blockchain to be used, which can be more or less decentralized, more or less permissioned and the type of consensus which must be reached to tally the vote on the blockchain.

Despite a number of countries such as Brazil, Denmark, South Korea, and Switzerland claim to be exploring blockchain based voting, none has yet taken bold steps in this direction. Not even Estonia, which remains the world´s most advanced country on internet voting. Estonia´s history for instance is illuminating. Its online voting system has been repeatedly challenged and criticized by technologists since its very first implementation in 2007. So far even the Estonian system does not use a blockchain and it is based on cryptographic public key infrastructure (PKI). Despite Estonia´s internet voting experience might be considered to some extent a success story, Estonia´s path cannot be blindly followed by much larger and much more strategically/geopolitically important countries, let alone by a superpower like the USA. Considering the scale of the irregularities which are alleged in this 2020 elections and the massive interests at play for the power struggle in the USA, an internet based voting system would be a “big unexpected gift”, indeed the best possible tool to enable lobbies, powerful special interest groups or foreign agents to steer any future election in the direction that best suits them. If such irregularities can still happen in a fundamentally paper based ballot system, one cannot imagine what would happen if internet voting were largely available, and not only limited to overseas military personnel as it is now.

A scary fiction story by Alex Berke goes indeed this far and greatly describes what a nightmare a future internet based voting could be in such a dystopian scenario.

Thus far only one company — named Voatz — claims to have created a blockchain based voting app. Mainly targeting overseas military and other absentee voters, Voatz has been used in federal, state, and municipal elections in West Virginia, Denver, Oregon, and Utah, as well as the 2016 Massachusetts Democratic Convention and the 2016 Utah Republican Convention. The company claims that election security and integrity are maintained through the use of a permissioned blockchain, biometrics and hardware-backed key storage modules on the user’s device.

Voatz voting app however was dissected by three MIT researchers who published a paper titled “The Ballot is Busted Before the Blockchain: A Security Analysis of Voatz…” in which a number of its dangerous vulnerabilities were exposed.

Most importantly though — in addition to the system vulnerabilities mentioned in the above paper — Voatz use of the blockchain looks more like a smart marketing operation. The blockchain used is a permissioned corporate IBM blockchain with minimal decentralization across a few corporate nodes.

Alone the choice of a private blockchain with minimal decentralization should be a big red flag for any government/public authority.

The MIT paper further adds that “In our exploration of the code, we find no indication that the app receives or validates any record that has been authenticated to, or stored in, any form of a blockchain. We further found no reference to hash chains, transparency logs, or other cryptographic proofs of inclusion. We conclude that any use of a blockchain by Voatz likely takes place purely on the backend, or in the receipt stage via the use of some other mechanism”.

Transparency has also been an issue here and the MIT researchers have complained that the company has not been cooperative. That is certainly not reassuring if the company´s “blockchain” voting app is being used for public elections. One should indeed question how Voatz was able to win the contract for the above mentioned state elections without undergoing a much more comprehensive public scrutiny of their voting app and without making their codes available open source. Clearly, handing out the electoral system to private corporations is a very bad idea, but unfortunately can be also very tempting.

Regardless of the blockchain use, some technologists point towards so called End-to-end verifiable voting systems. This means that voters must be able to (i) verify that their ballots, whether cast electronically or on paper, are properly recorded and (ii) verify that all recorded ballots are correctly tallied. There are a variety of end-to-end auditable voting systems that have been developed with the addition of cryptography, which are ready to be used as the US Vote Foundation claims.

One can advocate purposeful blockchain uses in a number of important public sectors such as digital identities, public land registries, or to fix dysfunctional privatizations and to share public natural monopolies among citizens, as a new way to manage governmental tax credits and issue a public digital currency and also to fight wealth inequality or to expose the corruptive “philanthropy” of the oligarchs.

All the above are excellent uses for blockchains in public sectors and they all bring many advantages, new solutions to existing problems and have little or no downside risk.

With electoral systems though is different. A secure voting system remains the foundation of a democracy and one cannot be careful enough before venturing in uncharted waters. One should stress two key issues here: first, that any technological application should be open source so that the best technologists can compete in testing it and prove its resilience under all circumstances; second, that any such technologies are to be developed by a bipartisan public organization with transparent public funding and never to be subcontracted to private corporations or privately funded foundations, ONG´s, Think-Tanks and the likes, which are subject to corruption by private donors.


The level of wealth inequality and its concentration in few hands has never been higher since the last wave of globalization swept the world in the 1920s. We know what then followed: the drama of the great depression, the surge of totalitarian regimes and the destruction of WWII. The corruptive power of such inordinate wealth has never been more arrogant and more belligerent.

For those who care to look, the signs are plenty to be seen: the mainstream media repeats globally, in unison, the very same narratives without dissenting voices; the social media arbitrarily censors alternative narratives and shuts down the accounts of the dissenters; tech-oligarchs hide behind their “philanthropic” foundations to foster their own private agendas, and special interest groups and lobbies buy up political consensus globally. All this has already effectively sterilized the democratic process in many parts of the once “democratic” western world, including among European member states. Corrupted politicians answer to their money-masters, not to the citizens who have elected them.

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What we have left — for now — is only our vote. Voting is a duty but also an enormous gift, a right for which our fathers fought wars, endured pain and spilled blood. It is worth the small effort of walking to the nearest polling station and vote in person. It is worth the little inconvenience of having to queue up in bad weather. It is worth the tiny concentration effort, the mindful thought required before writing that name on the ballot. For once — for respect for that great gift that our fathers and grand fathers made us — we can do without that damned mobile phone.

© www.bianconiandrea.com — 2020

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© www.bianconiandrea.com — 2020

Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash

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