The Future of Voting
September 19, 2017
Every eligible individual should be able to actively participate in democracy by easily and safely voting when, how, and where they want. Democratic institutions generally subscribe to this philosophy, yet do little to implement it in practice. The guiding philosophy follows:
“We should be guided by the dynamics of the voting public we serve — seniors whose needs include accessibility and readability of materials; persons with disabilities who have a reasonable expectation of fair and respectful service that allows for a private and secure voting experience; busy professionals who seek options for voting that match their mobile lifestyles — before and on Election Day; citizens with an array of cultural and ethnic backgrounds who depend on increased language accessibility and voter assistance; and future voters whose expectations may include things not yet considered.”
Dean C. Logan | LA County Registrar-Recorder | August 8, 2013
To realize this grand vision, it is impossible to envision the future of democracy where elections remain void of technology and modern design practices; digital democracy will be the global standard. Unfortunately, there exists a wide gap between this inevitability and the progress actually being made towards secure remote voting. In fact, most recent efforts, technically and legislatively, have been focused on in-person, paper-based voting.
As major corporate system hacks and election meddling by foreign nation states dominate the news cycle, it is no surprise that digitally enabled systems pose serious challenges. In the context of elections, these challenges revolve around reconciling the tension between strong privacy and security requirements; it is difficult to both guarantee the correctness of the results and the inability of voters to demonstrate how they have voted. Furthermore, this must all be done in an environment where everyone is potentially adversarial and no one is to be trusted (*).
However, moving backwards towards anachronistic electoral practices ignores an increasingly demanding, mobile, and connected society with a need for broader access, public transparency, and individual verifiability. As opposed to working collaboratively to find solutions to these problems, many are trying pull the industry back into the past.
Society no longer rides horse and buggy despite the risk of auto accidents introduced by cars; the mere existence of risk should not preclude technological progress. Compromises are made to optimize for the trade-off between a technology’s realized human benefit and potential risk. Risk is mitigated to control for the likelihood of any postulated threat transpiring and for the effect that transpired threat may have is known and acceptable.
Restore Trust in Elections. Our current election infrastructure does not earn the trust of those using it, rather, it demands it without offering the verifiable proof that a voter’s vote was cast and counted as intended. Voters must be provided sufficiently convincing evidence that election integrity has not been compromised.
Make it Easy to Vote and Impossible to Cheat. The unfortunate downside of in-person, paper-based elections is that access to voting is reduced, negatively impacting an increasingly mobile society. Mobile technology is passed its point of ubiquity; imagine if your only option for filing your taxes was to appear at the IRS in person, your only option for banking to show up to your local branch at their hours, and your only option for shopping to go to the store. With elections, it is not just a matter of convenience; people risk their lives to participate in elections, and far too many lose their lives doing so.
Make Elections Transparent. It is inaccurate to say that paper ballots increase transparency and trust*; there is a distinct lack of clarity in our current voting process as made notorious through “black-box” systems. When a voter casts a paper ballot in a polling place, how does she fundamentally know that her vote was properly submitted and tallied? In most elections today, even with procedural and legislative support, paper trails are not worth the paper they are printed on.
Voter trust is fundamental to a sound democratic process and, without it, election results have little to no value to those participating. Despite the tremendous efforts put forth by every dedicated elections official across the U.S. during the 2016 election cycle, less than 1/3 of all Americans were confident that votes nationwide were counted as intended and only 66% of Americans were confident that their own vote was counted as intended.
This is indeed a crisis of trust and indicative of a tremendous civic problem as confidence in elections has been waning over time and today is at historic lows. It is clearly time to rethink our voting systems in a voter-centric way. In consequential governmental elections, a more transparent and publicly-verifiable process is needed. Ultimately, a method that is independently and easily verifiable by election management bodies, trusted independent authorities, and individually by each voter, is the only true solution to push democratic decision making towards greater dependability, accuracy, and accountability while restoring the trust of those participating.
Blazing wildfires consumed thousands of acres of woodland across Eastern Kentucky on November 8, 2016 — more than 400 Kentucky first responders took to the 38 active infernos in an attempt to curb their progress and quell the State of Emergency. These brave firefighters sacrificed not only their safety, but also their vote. Unable to make it to the polls on Election Day, these women and men simply could not partake in the democratic process.
Most eligible Americans should remember November 8, 2016 as the day when they voted — but the truth is that 44.6% did not vote…that’s over 100,000,000 people who can vote but are not voting. While not all of these voters shared the experience of the admirable Kentucky first responders, many did. The estimated 96% of the 2.6 million Americans living overseas can certainly empathize; only 4% of overseas citizens voted. When first responders and America’s military, the very people putting themselves on the line for the democratic process, are disenfranchised from the process itself, we have a massive problem.
Furthermore, voter confidence in our election process is waning, in fact:
Only ~30% of voters trust that ballots were counted as cast at a national level
Only ~65% of voters trust their own ballot was counted as cast
Only 41% of voters believe the election was fairly determined
45% of voters believe voter fraud could have affected the outcome of the election
36% of voters trust national elections less after learning that a majority of states use voting machines that are at least a decade old *
The takeaway is simply that too many voters don’t trust the integrity of the US election system.
While some of this skepticism is unfounded, much of it is reasonable. Even when you are aware of:
the checks and balances in place to prevent fraud;
how the decentralized nature of the system makes it difficult to orchestrate an attack on 10,000 independent local jurisdictions;
the post-election reviews and audits of results to ensure accuracy and integrity;
the physical security of machines;
it is still easy to find flaws in the process itself. For example, postal service obstacles caused roughly 17,000 ballots from our citizens overseas to not be recorded. *
To be a strong representative democracy, we have to realize the aforementioned objectives:
Everyone who is eligible to vote, should be able to
Integrity of the vote
It should be easy to vote (maximize participation) and impossible to cheat (maximize trust & security).
ACCESS AND INTEGRITY ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE
In elections, many believe there is an inherent tradeoff between ease of use and integrity of the process; by making it easier to vote you are necessarily weakening the integrity of the vote.
This is a fallacy. Think about online banking. Think about autonomous vehicles. Think about online voting in other countries (Estonia, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, France, New South Wales, even in some jurisdictions here in the US).
Increased convenience and accessibility can coincide with an increase in overall security and integrity. Voting has its own nuances that make it distinct from other technological challenges, but these challenges should not prevent us from attempting to work through them.
8.1 million Americans with visual impairment
7.6 million with auditory impairment
30.6 million who use a wheelchair/walker
19.9 million who have difficulty lifting and grasping (including pencils)
> 2.5 million UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) voters
53% of voters citing inability to physically make it to the polls as the primary reason why they don’t vote*
…we do not have a choice.
VOTING FOR A MOBILE WORLD
So we’ve set the stage — It’s time to take a deliberate pause and think about the state of our democratic process:
We have millions of skeptical voters who don’t trust the process, millions of people who do not vote because they physically don’t make it to the polls, and an election infrastructure built a decade before the first iPhone.
To increase turnout and make elections as accessible as they should be, we have to bring the process into the 21st century.
The internet is not the same internet it was back in days of dial-up when our turn-of-the-century election technology was state of the art. Historically, our elections have taken place almost entirely offline; and even today, most systems are not connected to the internet, including tabulation (vote counting) machines. Technological challenges of authentication, security, auditability, and robustness inhibited us from even considering the possibility of online elections. However, in a world where the digital divide is narrowing and an overwhelming, growing and tech-savvy majority have access to mobile technology, the internet not only becomes technologically feasible but also a powerful enfranchisement platform.
Furthermore, Blockchain is the technology that makes the internet a viable medium to transact in a world where no one trusts anyone else.
As Satoshi Nakamoto said best, we now have the technological capability to provide a voting system “for electronic transactions without relying on trust…the network is robust in its unstructured simplicity.” *
Voters want a level of transparency to know that their vote was cast as intended, counted as cast, and auditable. Voters want to know that the results were not tampered with. Voters want to feel and assure that their vote counts. Blockchain does these things — it offers process efficiency, immediate transparency of election results, much higher data security, data interoperability with existing voting systems, lower cost than our legacy systems, fraud elimination, increased auditability, and error reduction.
Let’s think about how this plays out in real life taking a disenfranchised Marine serving abroad and comparing what their experience looks like today relative to what it could be.
“…challenges faced by military voters are immense. As America’s most mobile population, military voters are constantly on the go moving from one duty station to the next. If they have any hope of voting, military voters are required to navigate a confusing array of state absentee voting laws. In many cases, the request for an absentee ballot never comes or comes too late to vote.” *
The military are subject to an incredibly logistically complicated process with complete lack of transparency into any of it — did their request for a ballot go through? Did their marked ballot even make it back to the States? Did it make it back to the US and in time for the election or was it counted provisionally? If it made it back, did their marked ballot get tallied properly?
…on a secure digital platform, a submarine-stationed Marine somewhere in the mid-Atlantic can request, receive, mark, return, and verify their ballot in a matter of minutes. Furthermore, leveraging cryptographic proofs and modern encryption methods, this Marine could cast their vote through the Blockchain platform, with full transparency into the process, having their vote authenticated and validated by trusted election auditors in real time, without ever compromising their privacy — voter secrecy is maintained.
TO THE FUTURE
A mobile voting platform ultimately reduces the level of blind trust required in election administrators as voters can guarantee the integrity of the election. The platform is exponentially more convenient and accessible to the voters and to administrators. The platform is financially responsible relative to the high-costs associated with paper elections. And, because the platform produces an immutable audit trail, skeptics, voters, non-voters, and anyone else can verify the accuracy of the election.
This is not to say we can actually do this tomorrow and that it will be easy to implement, integrate and offer mobile voting as an alternative medium to traditional methods; nor is this to say I’m a legitimate psephologist or applied cryptographer. There are plenty of security, usability, accessibility and other technological challenges to work through, but we should recognize this is not a senseless hypothetical — this is well within the realm of possibility.
(*) Blockchain architecture specifically addresses one of the most difficult factors challenging electoral integrity — the trust model. Blockchain ensures trust is distributed amongst a set of mutually distrustful parties, all of whom are potentially adversarial, that participate in jointly managing and maintaining the cryptographically secure digital trail of the election. By distributing trust in this way, blockchains create a trustless environment whereby the amount of trust required from those participating in an election is minimized.
* Sources — Pew Research Center (12.2016), MIT (12.2016), Democracy Fund (11.2016), Smartmatic (12.2016), US Census (2014, 2016), FVAP (11/2016), mvpProject, Nakamoto, Satoshi. “Bitcoin: A peer-to-peer electronic cash system.” (2008): 28.