Is blockchain the answer to election tampering?

Frank Palermo,

Executive Vice President - Technology, Media & Telecommunications

Published: February 6, 2019

With the midterm elections upon us, the news is once again buzzing about election tampering.

There's a lot at stake given that 33 senators are up for reelection this fall. There are also 36 governors races this year. The outcome of the election is vitally important in not only shaping the future of the Trump administration but in defining the future of the American political landscape for many years to come.

However, there's a lot more at stake than political control of the House and Senate. The foundation of our democratic process is on display. Our ability to ensure the integrity of the voting system is paramount. Elections must be transparent and provide assurances that the process and technology used will provide deterministic results.

Allegations of fraud and outside influence will continue to rise, even in advanced democracies, if we don't apply technology to eliminate tampering. We need a platform that ensures proper voter registration, identification and streamlines the process of counting votes -- all while providing transparency to the results.

It's Not A Technology Problem

This has turned into more of a political issue than a technology issue.

Today, most of our lives are conducted over the internet. We do our banking through a mobile app, we send money to people via Venmo, we pay our bills, register our vehicles online and interact with friends and family members online.

But we can't vote online.

Is it possible that the answer lies in leveraging blockchain and a mobile voting system to ensure the integrity of our future elections?

The Current System Is Broken And Not Secure

Electronic voting became mainstream following the chaos that ensued after the 2000 presidential election. Many voters were confused by the paper voting process and "butterfly ballots," resulting in large numbers of votes that were allegedly misplaced. Subsequent election reform legislation led to the rollout of electronic voting machines.

According to the Economic Times, over 30 countries have used or studied electronic voting machines, and some are still piloting the technology.

There are three businesses that build computer machines for voting: Sequoia, Election Systems and Software (ES&S), and Diebold, but much of this technology is old and no longer secure.

During the 2016 election, the Department of Homeland Security claimed that Russian hackers allegedly targeted voting systems in 21 states. Illinois officials confirmed their state's databases were breached, with 500,000 voter records compromised. The investigation, led by the special counsel Robert Mueller, resulted in charging 26 Russian nationals.

Despite this, the threat has not diminished. As recently as July 2018, security experts discovered Russian phishing campaigns that targeted three candidates in the 2018 midterm elections.

The trust Americans have in the election system will continue to diminish unless we find a solution that ensures election votes are not being tampered. It's not farfetched to think that a lack of trust affects voter turnout. People may stay home rather than vote in what they perceive is a rigged election.

Is Blockchain The Answer?

The Kaspersky Lab Business Incubator was one of the first to develop an Ethereum blockchain-based voting platform called Polys. Polys uses smart contracts, which allows ballot verification and vote tallies to be performed in a decentralized manner and verified by network participants. Hackers would have to break into an entire network of computers and gain access to the data, which is highly unlikely.

In this year's midterm elections, West Virginia will become the first state to pilot online voting through a mobile app using blockchain technology to tally votes. The system, created by a startup called Voatz, "Uses biometric authentication to identify individual users before allowing them to mark an electronic ballot, and the votes are then recorded in a private blockchain."

It began as a trial in May 2018 during the primary elections, targeting overseas voters in two countries. While the trials have been successful, they also have raised a lot of controversy.

Ensuring Transparency With Open Source

There are several open source blockchain voting platforms emerging. The benefits of an open source platform is that it is open and does not have proprietary algorithms, allowing citizens and agencies to audit functionality and improve security. Many startups are focusing on open source online voting systems.

Follow My Vote is an open source blockchain platform that uses a webcam and government-issued ID to allow voters to remotely and securely log in to cast votes. After they've selected their candidates, they can use their unique voter ID to open the virtual ballot box and verify their vote is present and correct.

VoteWatcher, created by Blockchain Technologies Corp., uses custom generated ballots that contain unique tokens in the form of QR codes to prevent the same ballot from being scanned twice. These tokens also serve as a means to unlock a "vote unit" that is transferred to the blockchain, allowing votes to be recorded and tallied in real time.

VotoSocial uses a combination of blockchain technology and a colored coins protocol to make sure votes can't be added, modified or deleted. All votes are public and traceable using an append-only decentralized blockchain.

An open data and open source online voting system may be the best philosophy to adopt.

Where Do We Go From Here?

There is clearly a need for an overhaul of our election system.

We need to expand the Secure Elections Act legislation, which gives the Department of Homeland Security the primary responsibility of sharing information about election cybersecurity incidents, threats and vulnerabilities. Today, the legislation focuses on replacing digital-only voting systems to machines that also leave a paper trail.

It's counterintuitive to focus on moving back to a paper-based system to ensure integrity. Ideally, this legislation should grant federal money that can be put toward the exploration and piloting of online voting systems. Instead of relying on paper trails to ensure authenticity, let's use the power of technology such as blockchain.

While it is too late to change the course of the midterm elections, we need to quickly focus on the 2020 election. The future of our democracy is counting on it.

The article was originally published on Forbes and is reposted here by permission.

Frank Palermo

Executive Vice President - Technology, Media & Telecommunications

Frank heads the Global Technical Solutions Group which contains many of Virtusa's specialized technical competency areas such as Business Process Management (BPM), Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence (DWBI).

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