Blockchain-based voting systems have potential despite security concerns

The 2020 United States presidential election was met with an increase in mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 concerns. Yet while many Americans stayed away from polling stations this year, postal delays, rejected ballots, and other challenges emerged.

Unsurprisingly, better ways for casting votes during major elections quickly became a hot topic of discussion. This has also led some in the crypto community advocating with renewed vigor for a blockchain-based voting system to be used in the future presidential elections.

While the promises of blockchain include trust, transparency and immutability, a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory pointed out security flaws associated with blockchain voting systems. The researchers published a report on Nov. 6 explaining that online voting is fatally flawed since such systems are vulnerable to large-scale cyber attacks. The report specifically discusses blockchain-based voting systems like Voatz, which has been used in U.S. municipal elections, yet reportedly suffers from data security issues.

Security aside, blockchain voting systems may be viable

Despite security concerns, some still believe that blockchain-based voting systems will be leveraged in major elections moving forward. Maxim Rukinov, head of the Distributed Ledger Technologies Center of St. Petersburg State University, told Cointelegraph that blockchain allows for a system of fair elections to take place within a trusted environment between participants who generally do not trust each other: “With blockchain you can make voting available and increase the transparency of any election. In a perfect scenario, the results of such a vote cannot be faked."

Rukinov shared that he has been working with a team of researchers to develop an online voting system specifically designed for enterprise use. Known as “CryptoVeche,” Rukinov explained that this particular system stores voting results in a blockchain, which is a type of distributed ledger. As such, the system is highly secure against external and internal hacks.

Alex Tapscott, co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institute and a book author, explained this in detail for a New York Times article published in 2018, even before the COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges to light. Tapscott pointed out that in elections, trust is concentrated within government agencies, which are extremely vulnerable to hacks, fraud, and human errors. To put this into perspective, a study released last year shows that local and federal government entities have fallen victim to 443 data breaches since 2014, but those mostly included lost hardware, mailing errors, and paper breaches.

Tapscott noted that a blockchain system relies on distributed network computers to verify transactions. Once verified, results are recorded in blocks that are linked cryptographically to the preceding block. A secure ledger is then formed, which is transparent to all network participants, yet remains immutable and tamper proof. This feature is also important for ensuring that individuals only cast a single vote, as blockchain-based systems are meant to prevent double-spending. 

Don Tapscott, well-known author and co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institute further told Cointelegraph that votes cannot be sent online today because internet-based systems do not work well for such applications:

“If we transmit information like a vote on the Internet we’re actually sending a copy of that file; the original remains in our possession. This is acceptable for sharing information but unacceptable for transactions with assets, like money, securities, songs or recording votes in elections.”

As such, Tapscott noted that within a blockchain-based system, public trust in the voting process is achieved through cryptography, code, and collaboration among citizens, government agencies, and other stakeholders.

Technical challenges must be overcome

Of course, there is no denying that technical challenges related to blockchain-based voting systems remain. In addition to the security concerns mentioned by MIT researchers in their recent report, Rukinov acknowledged that developing an online voting system is challenging.

Rukinov further explained that with blockchain systems the accuracy of transactions, in this case, voter registration is verified by a consensus mechanism between different members of the network. However, when it comes to voting systems independent observers must also be one of the parties involved with the consensus, meaning they would have to hold several validation nodes.

According to Rukinov, in most cases the number of nodes owned by the network organizer are greater than the number of independent nodes. So in the case of a blockchain-based voting system, an attack may occur when those who control more than half of the resources have the ability to change data at random. Rukinov pointed out that this problem is not the case for all types of consensus mechanisms.

Lior Lamash, Founder and CEO of GK8, a cybersecurity company, also told Cointelegraph that while the immutable nature of blockchain makes it an effective platform to ensure the integrity of the voting process, several vulnerabilities remain. Specifically speaking, Lamash noted that voter identification is problematic when using blockchain-based voting systems:

“The security aspect of blockchain-based voting is tricky. On one hand, the blockchain itself is completely secured from even state-level hackers, as it employs hundreds of thousands of nodes on multiple servers across the globe. The challenge would be in securing the ‘endpoints’ of this network – individual ballots and voting stations.”

Moreover, Lamash noted that while each ballot stores a user’s private keys, a hacker could obtain that information and manipulate the entire election process: “This issue is quite similar to the challenge that banks and other financial institutions face when offering blockchain-based services."

Undeniable potential

Although challenges remain with blockchain-based voting systems, it’s clear that blockchain has huge potential for use in future elections. Dylan Dewdney, chief executive officer of Kylin, a cross-chain platform designed for Polkadot-based data economy, told Cointelegraph that the trusted outcome of an election must also be taken into consideration. He further determined that blockchain being applied for data validation is highly useful in this case.

According to Dewdney, a decentralized infrastructure could help improve the trusted outcome of an electoral process. Dewdney explained that Kylin has created a data validation process using an oracle node, which serves as an information feed. An arbitration node is then used to judge if that data is valid or not. Dewdney said:

“Anyone operating an arbitration node would have an excellent incentive to challenge inaccurate information as they would be rewarded in a native token to do so. Similarly, providing accurate, validated (challengeable) information as a premium data feeder to consumers like news organizations, is incredibly valuable as a premium data feed in a data marketplace.”

Although Kylin is a solution that can easily be applied in the decentralized finance space, the same concept can be used for voting systems. “Decentralized validation of local electoral results could provide a very powerful tool against some of the problems we are currently seeing." He further added: "This could easily operate as the linked consensus of the validated API feeds of literally thousands of local election results reported to websites within a Dapp developers premium data sourcing.”

Rukinov believes that the ideal blockchain-based voting system must cater to voter eligibility, verifiability, and immutability. He mentioned that these features can be achieved in the future through cryptographic protocols including digital signatures, zero-knowledge proofs, and homomorphic encryption: “In order to achieve additional benefits, it’s necessary to add the possibility of cancelling the registration; observers being able to detect the facts of falsification; and the permanence of the register change history."

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