Distrust is at an all-time high in the United States, particularly following the recent elections, and where the U.S. goes the world often follows. In November’s presidential election President Trump called the election “rigged” before it began and refused to concede when the results went against him. As a result of these claims, more than half of Republican voters believed there was widespread electoral fraud. The effect is less trust in American institutions and systems of governance. 

Unfortunately, losing faith in elections is also happening internationally, particularly in Belarus. This involved a scandal where President Alexander Lukashenko’s sixth consecutive election was rejected by the European Union on the basis of foul play. But what can be done to address widespread losses of faith in democracy

Attacks on the electoral process prey on functions where human error or bias can be found or implied, such as the counting process. For example, once a vote is cast there are strict rules for transporting, storing and counting the vote in a way that makes the process efficient, auditable and transparent while protecting voter privacy. The stringent rules and controls in place for handling votes typically mean that voter fraud and human error are isolated to a small number of cases, even in democracies as vast as the U.S.  

See related article: US Postal Service explores blockchain-assisted mail-in voting system

Although these processes have worked for centuries, they are facing a new breed of challenges in the modern information environment. There is a presumption of bad faith by those taking part in an election, which includes international actors who may stand to gain by influencing results. This means that even minuscule rates of error in manual processes can be magnified to undermine faith in the entire election and create conflict, as evidenced by the 2020 misinformation “superspreaders.”

Debugging democracy

Delivering fair elections in an information ecosystem where every knowledge gap can be exploited, and every unfounded claim can be promoted to millions instantaneously, is a massive challenge. As an example, one of the most widely seen “news” stories in 2016 related to the Pope endorsing Trump, but it was completely fabricated, and the Russians amplified it massively on social media. In addition, this article reflects on the extent of Russian disinformation in the public sphere during the 2016 elections. 

Trust has been bottoming out since then, and although disinformation wasn’t as much of an issue during the 2020 elections, the pandemic has certainly highlighted the importance of transparency in government action. Rebuilding trust in government starts with the process of voting. Democracy is moving from a philosophical concept to a technical one, as technical frameworks for protecting voting are potentially becoming more important than constitutional frameworks.

Blockchain technology can famously perform mathematical functions and verification autonomously, making it ideal for use in elections. The problem with this technology has always been the need to have a verifiably safe voting process while protecting the secret ballot. Early efforts at blockchain voting struggled with auditing the legitimacy of ballots while protecting every voter’s right to privacy. Voting authorities had to store votes cast in a central repository, which meant the secrecy of the voters’ ballots and often accompanying personal information was only as secure as the database that stored them. 

This represented a considerable hurdle to mainstream adoption of blockchain voting; many cited this as a reason that blockchain-based voting could not work, including some within the tech community and academia. Thankfully a technological fix to this issue is now available through the use of a zero-knowledge proof or zk-SNARK. This proof allows two parties to mathematically verify that they have a particular set of information, without revealing the information itself. 

Zero-knowledge proofs originated in the 1980s, with ZCash presenting as the first real use case. Development has accelerated a lot since then. For example, this allows voting authorities to verify that each voter is registered and has not voted already, without knowing the contents of their vote. It also ensures that all votes to be counted and audited, all while protecting the privacy of every voter.

Benefits of Democracy 2.0

There are exciting implications for widespread use of blockchain voting in today’s information ecosystem. The main benefit is removing the prospect of human error from the proceedings. While this has never been on a scale to affect the results of prominent elections historically, it has been enough to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt that can undermine the integrity of an election. In the U.S., we saw how attacking the election integrity was a prolonged process where groups and individuals sowed the seeds of doubt in the build-up, and the attacks on results became concentrated throughout the counting process in any area where the votes were close.

See related article: When Democracy Is Not Enough: How Blockchain is Revolutionizing Latin America

In a blockchain-enabled democracy, the candidates would be invested in the system from the beginning, and counting would be instantaneous. Knowledge gaps would be eliminated, as each vote would be verified and accounted for, while privacy would be protected through the use of zk-SNARKs. Remote voting would be possible for those with mobility issues or sheltering in place for health reasons, as well as military personnel and other voters stationed overseas.

Democracy is facing new challenges in today’s digital world, but it is also facing a new opportunity in blockchain voting. Despite the directive issued by the Central Bank of Nigeria, Nigerians continue to use their crypto on peer-to-peer exchanges, setting a strong precedence for decentralized voting systems to gain a foothold in the nation.

In Catalonia, the autonomous region in northeastern Spain, elections were temporarily rescheduled due to concerns around the ongoing pandemic. The need to postpone elections entirely due to Covid-19 and the inability to facilitate safe elections highlight the ineffectiveness of current methods of online voting — they’re insecure and cannot protect data privacy. The technology for decentralized voting that is safe, secure, and transparent is here now and should be deployed as a solution.  

In contemporary elections, every decision is scrutinized in the context of polling or other considerations as a political ploy, even while a pandemic representing a threat to life persists. But using blockchain voting would eliminate these logistical considerations, as well as concerns about voter suppression and voter fraud. This could be how faith in government is restored when it is needed most.