Blockchain and distributed ledger technology were probably the last things on anyone’s mind on the evening of Feb. 3, when the world – which is to say, a handful of anxious Democratic candidates, their ardent supporters and their opposition – waited with bated breath for the initial results of the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses.

As time dragged on with no news, they realized something had gone wrong with the arduous voting process. Democratic party officials quickly put out a statement citing “quality control” as the reason for the delay. It gradually became clear that the root of the problem lay in the failure of an app that Iowa Dems had newly introduced in the hopes of streamlining the famously inefficient caucuses. 

The IowaReporterApp, developed by the political technology company Shadow Inc., was intended to perform a simple function: it would take pictures of all the ballots from precincts across Iowa and process the results, then pass on the information to the central office to be tabulated. Problems cropped up from the get-go; precinct chairs reported log-in failures and inaccurate data recognition. The Democratic National Committee was forced to resort to cross-checking electronic results against a paper trail. In 2020, with the advent of self-driving cars and regenerative medicine, the elections that determine the leadership of the most powerful country in the world come down to hand-counting penciled-in slips of paper. 

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The U.S. relies on paper ballots for voting. Photo by Arnaud Jaegers

This shows the desperate need for technology in the voting process – not untested, hastily cobbled-together apps like the IowaReporterApp, but rather a reliable, transparent technology that expedites and ensures the implementation of democracy. At first glance, this seems to be a blockchain-sized gap, and understandably so. Beyond being a failure of encoding information, the Iowa mess was exacerbated by lack of transparency, as Democratic candidate after candidate announced their conflicting victories in the vacuum of information left by the processing delay. The situation depicted the exact problems that the blockchain industry has identified and fundamentally targets: opacity, centralization and inefficiency.

So why wouldn’t open-source technology be perfectly suited to improving the balloting system? Maybe it should. Here we lay out the arguments supporting the use case of blockchain in the democratic process:

  • The traditional voting process requires physical presence at a specified location, precluding the participation of many people who live far from polling sites or work in jobs that do not give time off for election day. 
  • Absentee voting is notoriously difficult and discouraging, requiring all manners of devices and processes, such as scanners and postage.
  • Recording and tabulation are currently prone to human error at many points. Blockchain, on the other hand, is immutable and impartial.
  • Current polling machines, which are connected to the internet, are not secure enough and have faced hacking attempts, most famously by Russia in 2016. Voter fraud and foreign interference alike would be mitigated, if not eradicated, by an encrypted and decentralized database. 
  • An automated blockchain voting network would require less manpower to operate than traditional ballots.
  • In any democratic decision of public interest, it is counter-intuitive to allow proprietary software to play a part in the decision. Open-source software is an important step in creating transparency, cultivating trust and building more resilient systems, all of which are sorely lacking in the current political climate.

Five months ago, Democratic candidate Andrew Yang called for modernization of the voting system through blockchain. Implementation of a streamlined mobile voting process verified by blockchain is long overdue, he said in a statement, and would serve only to “dramatically increase participation in all elections, whether local, state or federal.” 

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Blockchain-based systems could provide security as well as mobile voting. Photo by Elliott Stallion

Others believe the risks of using blockchain to overhaul voting systems are too high. They argue that:

  • Ease of voting would also allow for easily-registered improper results (imagine if every teenager who wanted to vote for Harambe in 2016 could have written in the infamous dead gorilla’s name on the presidential ballot with little effort).
  • Encryption might be perceived to not be sufficient for protecting a database from such Internet-specific threats as “server penetration attacks, client-device malware, denial-of-service attacks and other disruptions,” which would put “the integrity of the election system… at risk.” (This argument does not address the added layer of decentralization)
  • Should internal problems occur, there would be no one authority positioned to address these problems; i.e. human involvement is necessary.

While blockchain voting proponents favor efficiency and accuracy and have faith in the inherent security of the distributed ledger system, its opponents remain skeptical and worry about the potential for widespread damage. Indeed, critics may have a point – in the case of Iowa, the errors that were made stemmed not from the nature of the technology itself, but from human neglect to maintain and test that technology.

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Had a similar app running on blockchain tech been used, the same issues may still have possibly occurred. But to say that blockchain is useless to the electoral system based on its vulnerabilities to the same massive mistakes made in the Iowa caucus is a mistake as well; its success would depend on its implementation.

With every new technology, there are unforeseeable obstacles to its function. In the case that blockchain voting were to be implemented, there would certainly have to be much testing and rewriting of the system. However, the advantages that it has the potential to offer – anonymity, transparency and efficiency – are certainly reason enough to attempt it. 

As it stands, politicians and voters are still largely apprehensive about blockchain voting. However, the Iowa caucus mishap may be a step toward acceptance.