The American inventor Jacque Fresco once said: “Even if the most ethical people were elected to the highest positions … there would still be lying, cheating, stealing, and corruption. It is not ethical people that are needed but rather intelligent management.”
If Fresco’s assertion is correct – that improvements to democracy come not from how we cherry-pick our leaders, but how we structure the democratic institutions in which they operate – then blockchain technology may just be about to offer up some sorely needed solutions, for elections at least.
In 2016, the not-for-profit outfit Democracy Earth Foundation ran a pilot scheme in partnership with the OECD to allow Columbian expats to participate in a blockchain-managed voting process in relation to the Columbian peace process.
Whilst that vote was purely symbolic – expat votes were not formally counted by the Columbian authorities – it did at least serve to make a point: “the security and integrity of electoral processes is not just a matter for state control, but … can [now] be guaranteed collectively, [and] supported by blockchain technology,” the OECD report noted.
Rooting Out Corruption
By outsourcing voting management to smart contracts as opposed to human beings, the blockchain can offer up the ability to render voting and voting registration procedures transparent, trustworthy and fully auditable.
The blockchain’s inherent immutability and audibility serves as a disincentive for any official that is tempted to cook the books
The caveat is that those procedures themselves need to be coded up in a way that eliminates any margin for manipulation off-chain – because if there is one thing that is worse than fraud, it is immutable fraud. If governments do choose to go down this route, expect some very long Beta phases.
A list of improvements that the blockchain can potentially bring to voting equation include:
Each US presidential election – at least since the election of George Bush in November 2000 – has been dogged by accusations of voter disenfranchisement where black voters run a higher risk, for example, of being exposed to the kind of administrative procedures that impede their registration for state and federal elections.
With blockchain technology, all registration procedures could – in theory – proceed with all administrative steps managed by smart contracts. There will, naturally, still have to be a human element – a civil servant will always be required, for example, to verify the validity of a utility bill.
But whilst blockchain technology won’t be Democracy’s silver bullet, that civil servant will nonetheless have their unique ID registered against their administrative stamp – so when some-one is endowed with the responsibility for granting approval or otherwise of a given voter’s registration, the blockchain’s inherent immutability and audibility serves as a disincentive for any official that is tempted to cook the books.
Just as the Bitcoin network’s proof-of-work consensus mechanism rules out the ability for anyone to spend the same bitcoin twice, so a blockchain-based voting platform can ensure that no-one will be able to exercise their vote twice.
During the last US presidential election, Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that millions and millions of voters had voted more than once against him. Whilst there was no underlying proof provided for the claim, certain outfits such as Politifact engaged in their own research to determine the validity or otherwise of the claim.
And whilst Politifact eventually arbitrated against Trump’s claim, many Trump supporters continued to accept Trump’s claims on faith. With a blockchain-based system where such double-voting – or double-counting – is rendered impossible, such claims become mathematically demonstrable as fantasy. And if such a situation arises, don’t be surprised to see some people denouncing the blockchain as its own conspiracy.
In more corrupt countries, on the other hand, where such widespread abuse of the democratic process is genuinely endemic, the benefits are – it goes without saying – much greater again.
One of the biggest challenges faced by modern democracies is participation. Whilst one source of the issue relates to many people’s simple lack of faith in the system to bring the kind of change they want to see, another derives from the fact that some people simply don’t see the democratic process as important enough to merit the time and effort that it takes to go and vote.
Of course, the proposition for internet-based voting as a remedy for this kind of voter apathy isn’t new – but it has largely been given one large bypass for the simple reason that most people are simply uneasy with the idea: traditional, centralised internet technology is seen as non-transparent and prey to manipulation, largely because it is.
When you tie that technology into an open-source blockchain, however, you suddenly have a reliable mechanism for distance-voting which itself can be tied to biometric-based methods of identity authentication.
No Brainer in Search of Willing Partner
On the other hand, integrating new blockchain-based mechanisms into the democratic process requires political will. No country that we know of is currently rushing to implement a blockchain-based solution for its elections. That is in part because politicians aren’t necessarily the most likely demographic to demonstrate an appreciation of innovative technologies, and in part because applying such a radical change to a country or a state’s underlying democratic set-up implies an administrative nightmare.
One story did run back in 2016 about a trial run of blockchain technology in Sierra Leone but, interestingly, that story was later flagged as an outright fabrication. However, there are some signs that the idea is gaining hold: according to one analyst, we could be seeing trial runs as early as 2020 in North America and Western Europe, most likely at local level.
After that, once the benefits have been clearly demonstrated, then more general adoption is likely to follow – and the benefits for blockchain itself could be just as huge as the changes implied for democracy itself.