The Rocky Road Ahead for Blockchain-based E-voting.

While the buzz around cryptocurrency is raging on, fueled by both its tantalizing prospects and volatile market performance making it a staple in the headlines, the technology it was spawned from is widely agreed as the most positive contribution. The skepticism surrounding Blockchain implementation is waning. Corporations are making strides in incorporating it into their existing system and now, the government is formulating policies that are progressive and optimistic in their approach, warming up to the possible areas of interest for applying Blockchain, where the proposed solution is perfectly tailored to its multifaceted purpose. And the newest and most immediate application is in solving the woes of voting.

Sunil Arora, the Chief Election Commissioner of India, has claimed that the Election Commission of India is working with IIT-Madras in creating an app-based e-voting that’s structured on Blockchain technology, to make voting more convenient during the general elections and realizing remote voting as a reality. As the world’s largest democracy, voting has always been an area of constant improvement for the Indian government. Paper ballots were the norm until the 1990’s when EVMs took over to accommodate the nearly 1 billion strong population and to counter fraudulent voting and booth capturing. EVMs have proved to be a reliable tool but it is plagued by a fair share of shortcomings. Its efficiency is not in question, often praised for its tamper-proof technology, rather the problem lies in its effectiveness. Voter convenience is a major factor and to attain a cent per cent voter turnout requires both a well-functioning polling staff and cooperation from the voters, a rare combination that’s yet to be achieved on a large scale. Expenses are an issue as an ideal EVM costs Rs. 17000 and storage is limited (a maximum of 2000 votes can be stored in each one). The logistics of planning, organizing and transporting EVMs as well as the cumbersome, winding process of counting and recounting, if any discrepancies were found, is no easy feat.

Blockchain’s transparent, decentralised, secure and real-time recording of information is an excellent alternative. Transactions, verified by nodes responsible for writing the information on the Blockchain, cannot be erased or manipulated as it’s open-source and anonymity is maintained by the encryption. The absence of a central system ensures free and fair voting. Perhaps the most ambitious goal of creating a Blockchain-structured voting structure is in facilitating remote voting, eliminating the need for polling booths and ensuring the quintessential right to vote to any Indian in any part of the Indian territory, from the soldiers and citizens of the Siachen Glacier to the mangrove swamps of the Andaman Islands.

Three major methods of action have been widely accepted as the most feasible application of Blockchain as a voting system; voting with coins, permission blockchain and zero-knowledge proofs (ZKFs) for secret ballots. Using coins as votes involves a registered voter possessing a public and private key created by the voting authority. The voter gives their public key to the voter registry who spends a coin for it. The coin is then spent by the voter on the candidate of their choice. The candidate with the most coins is the winner. Permissioned blockchains give the government complete control to customise the blockchain’s functions. It’s a cross between a public and private blockchain that supports customization options like verification of identity (voter ID) and allocation of select and designated permissions to perform only certain activities on the network. Zero-knowledge proof or zero-knowledge protocol is a cryptographic technique where one party (the prover) can prove to another party (the verifier) that a given statement is true, without conveying any information apart from the fact that the statement is indeed true. Such a system can ensure the secrecy of the voter and the reliability of their vote.

Several blockchain-based elections have already been conducted across the globe with many companies already working to develop blockchain-based voting systems. In November 2018, Thailand conducted the first large-scale political elections via ZCoin. The Republic Party of Arizona piloted a blockchain-based voting system, Voatz, where officials used the mobile application-based solution during the pandemic. Similarly, after its initial pilot project, Russia is planning to expand blockchain voting across the country in its next parliamentary elections. But experts have also voiced their fair share of concerns.

The complex blockchain-based system of voting hinges on the immaculate execution of cryptographic protocols. In case of any error/inadequacy in execution, it could potentially reveal the identity and voting preferences of the voter or allow an individual to cast a vote as someone else. A full-fledged remote voting structure is not fully possible without some sort of biometric verification. Also since voting requires complete secrecy, the process of voter ID verification cancels it out as the information gathered can be used for malicious intent. A voter using a phone to vote depends not only on the phone vendor, but on the hardware companies providing drivers for the device, the baseband processor, the authors of third-party code in the voting software, the manufacturer of the physical device and the network or any other systems that the device relies upon to cast the vote, so system bugs and security compromises are common. And to solve this requires the government micro-managing every aspect of it. These are the few justifiable concerns that hold back such a system.

India’s obsession with techno-solutionism should not be just explored, but also developed. To create a viable, flexible solution from a disrupting technology as blockchain requires numerous trial and error experiments. But, hopefully, we’re not too far from realizing this goal.

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