As the COVID-19 pandemic makes waiting on long voting lines impractical and dangerous, mail-in voting has come under increasing attack, with President Donald Trump saying it has “tremendous potential for voter fraud.”
While that claim has in turn come under withering attack from opponents, the United States Postal Service recently filed a patent application for an alternative—a blockchain-based voting system like those created by several private companies like Voatz, Votem, and Polys.
But according to some cybersecurity experts, the embattled agency is wasting its time, as blockchain voting has little chance of success, and could even make things worse.
Jeremy Epstein, the vice chair of the Association for Computing Machinery’s U.S. Technology Policy Committee, told Modern Consensus in a phone interview that there’s “nothing really novel” about what the USPS is proposing—and if the patent is issued, it could face a legal challenge from the companies already offering blockchain-based voting systems.
“There’s nothing in here that’s really unique, so it’s kind of a bogus patent application as best as I can tell,” he said.
For Epstein, the USPS proposals are a sideshow distracting from the main issue at hand. In his view, blockchain voting is a bad idea… period.
“It doesn’t solve the hard problems, and it does a lousy job of solving the easy problems,” he said.
How a blockchain voting system would fall short
During the interview, Epstein explained the “hard problems” that blockchain voting fails to solve in great detail.
Using the technology doesn’t tackle the problems concerning remote voter identification and management—and there is a risk that malware on computers or a hacked voting app could result in the wrong vote being recorded on a blockchain. There’s no way to audit results relative to voter intent either, and in any case, many blockchain protocols simply aren’t scalable enough to cope with a national election where millions of people vote in a single day.
Epstein also warned that the dangers of using blockchain may only end up manifesting itself a few years after an election. He painted a scenario where a vulnerability in the technology used to encrypt results is exploited—risking secret ballots entering the public domain, especially as advancements continue to be made in quantum computing.
“Computer security experts almost universally agree that paper and pencil is the right way to do it. It’s what’s used in most of the world. It is not perfect, there are chain of custody issues, various other issues… but by and large it’s a much better solution than any of the others, and blockchain is a solution looking for a problem, especially when it comes to voting.”
Epstein was one of the co-authors of a Common Cause report that warned blockchain does not resolve “the insoluble security issues inherent with online voting,” which also include denial-of-service, server penetration, and disruption attacks.
Is it really that bad?
The companies providing blockchain voting systems like Voatz and Votem—which have had a few small tests in the U.S.—have said e-voting can encourage remote participation, improve turnout among younger voters, and still create an immutable “paper” trail. Platforms such as Polys, run by Kaspersky, blend physical devices in polling places with app-based blockchain systems. Several trials have already taken place.
The controversial election that was held in Belarus last month can be held up as a reason for blockchain voting’s existence. Alexander Lukashenko, a strongman leader who has been president for 26 years, was re-elected for a sixth time—securing 80% of the vote. There have been widespread allegations of vote tampering and protests on the streets, with opposition candidates fleeing the country in fear for their safety. The United Kingdom has described the violence inflicted on peaceful protesters as “appalling,” with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab describing the election as “fraudulent.”
Clearly, there have been imperfections with the tried-and-tested approach of the humble paper ballot. Despite all of blockchain’s flaws, wouldn’t it be at least some improvement?
Still no, Epstein said—in fact, he fears this technology could make matters much worse.
“One of the challenges with any of the electronic-based schemes for voting is that it’s possible to do what we call ‘wholesale’ attacks as opposed to the retail attacks of stuffing ballots one at a time,” he told Modern Consensus.
“All you need to do if you’re Lukashenko’s party is push out some app to every phone that, no matter who you show on the screen, it casts the vote for Lukashenko. And then it’s now on the blockchain, so it must have been what the voter intended, but in fact the voter never intended that—and there’s no way for the voter to prove otherwise,” said Epstein, adding:
“You could have the exact same result with the veneer of proof that it was accurate because of blockchain, so it would actually be even worse.”
In an email sent to Modern Consensus following the phone interview, Epstein said of Lukashenko: “If I were him, I’d *much* rather use the model of pushing an app to everyone’s phone that silently manipulates the votes cast before they get put on the blockchain.
“It would require a handful of people to do that, while doing ballot box stuffing requires a conspiracy of thousands of people who might reveal what’s going on. The costs are lower and the odds of getting caught are lower with the hi-tech approach.”
Engaging the disengaged?
Many countries have seen turnouts dwindle in recent years. In the U.K., turnout was a paltry 67.3% in the 2019 election that saw Boris Johnson become Prime Minister. Contrast that to the 1979 race, when 76% exercised their democratic right and chose Margaret Thatcher to lead the country. The figures are even more sobering in the U.S., where just 56% of the voting-age population took part in the 2016 election.
Despite Epstein’s reservations, it’s highly likely that the concerted push for blockchain-based voting in the U.S. and elsewhere will continue unabated. Non-blockchain solutions have also had problems. Back in February, a disastrous switchover to an unready-for-primetime voting app for manually reporting precinct vote tallies plunged the Iowa caucus into chaos.
Last August, Andrew Yang, a Democratic presidential candidate who ultimately lost out to Joe Biden, argued: “It’s ridiculous that in 2020 we are still standing in line for hours to vote in antiquated voting booths. It is 100% technically possible to have fraud-proof voting on our mobile phones today using the blockchain. This would revolutionize true democracy and increase participation to include all Americans—those without smartphones could use the legacy system and lines would be very short.”