Decentralized voting system and its role in promoting transparency

Daniel Kopylov
Second- year master’s student, Faculty of International Economic Relations, MGIMO University

Anstract: Cryptocurrencies have already proven the viability of decentralized system. They can be used to the advantage of our society as they aim to minimize transaction costs and increase trust. The underlying mechanism, dubbed blockchain, can be adapted for the voting process. There are certain challenges which arise as some venture to use this system in real elections. The future of this technology cannot be described as bright, because people are not ready to believe the machine.

Keywords: e-voting, DLT, Blockchain, API

Nowadays everyone seems to be enthralled by cutting edge solutions and their advent into our lives. When the advantages of modern systems are outlined, only incremental changes are usually introduced. Conversely, the underlying technology behind cryptocurrencies is touted as a full-blown revolution in computing and distribution of information. Certainly, these claims sound a bit exaggerated as localized ledgers are already quite aged. However, the key innovation (besides continuous synchronization) is the adoption of p2p-systems.

Apparently, existing e-voting systems (like in Norway and Estonia) rely on centralized data processing [1]. Truth to be told, for outsiders this system is as close and guarded as the old ones. This fact leads to uncertainty and desire for more transparency. Furthermore, this dependence on one server raises questions about security. It is not a trivial task to hack elections when there are multiple servers containing the same information, unlike modern e-voting mechanisms.

The ultimate goal is to develop and provide a system that can be approved by all citizens (or people eligible to vote) [3]. Therefore, the main emphasis should be placed on gaining trust for the system. To achieve this, a voting system must be accurate, secure and transparent. Existing models rely on people support of the government institutions – they are not universal. Decentralized ones are based on an algorithm – no personalities involved.

In practice, decentralized systems have existed for many years [6]. P2P file sharing via torrents is one example which stepped in when the biggest data centers increased premium for up- and downloading media. Another example is DDoS attacks on various computers. Strictly speaking, these mechanisms show that a typical user, if empowered, is no different from a huge government or corporate server. Nevertheless, there was no way to maintain a complex database before the appearance of cryptocurrencies.

Why is such a database important? It actually helps to present the contents to users. Early implementations can provide basic service data which is of no interest to anyone besides developers. These systems do not provide for any kind of immutable open ledger that is crucial to monitor the ongoing situation in motion. Luckily, scientific progress has paved the way for egalitarian hardware and software. People can be free from big computers of the past, the same is true for applications.

Cryptocurrencies imply usage of DLT (distributed ledger technology), or blockchain. Bitcoin and Ethereum, for instance, allow for monitoring of transactions in real time. You can usually hear about anonymity, yet the correct word is confidentiality. We can also refer to the irreversible character of blockchain (which can be hacked, but it is another disputable question). Cryptocurencies already serve as proof-of-concept. Their sheer number and the legion of users show us that decentralized solutions have found a ready market. Now it is all about transactions, money, economy, investments etc. Yet the promised advantages include something more than this element – they emphasize freedom [8].

There is an innovative idea of technological democracy proposed by the creators of a new token EOS. The key difference is the ability to delegate your stake in the blockchain and corresponding rights to a chosen representative. As a result, a stakeholder consolidates votes in the system and acts in favor of his supporters. The only downside is the fact that the framework for this democracy is a concept so far.

But imagine a system where you can choose your candidate without any primaries and without any parties. Where even you can become a delegate. You may argue that such systems are prone to lobbying. No model is perfect, because those who develop it are not ideal. However, the more advanced the system is, the easier for us all to choose a universal delegate.

Evidently, we can promote the use of DLT-based voting systems. Firstly, a relevant requirement is the number of opportunities that this blockchain provides. Transparency and tamperability resistance account for the main advantage. Another factor is scalability which means that a small voting system can be simply adjusted for using on a nation-wide level. Last but not least, accuracy and verifiability are the qualities that are derived from the digital nature of e-voting [7].

All these factors seem to be in line with the prerequisites of a genuinely advanced voting system. Optimists may even argue that the only constraint is economical that will become less important in the near future.

On the other hand, decentralized systems are plagued by several cons. Cybersecurity is one of the most burning issues which should be addressed in most cases of setting up a digital system. Another problem is the rigidity of blockchains when it comes to updates. This protection is the downside of the tamper-free character. Disregarding the theoretical methods of hacking these systems, there is still a core of developers who distribute updates to all the nodes in the network. Software download requires time and consensus among all the nodes [5].

How can this technology blend with existing electronic voting? Firstly, local servers should be installed in the places where people are to submit their votes. These can range from personal computers and smartphones to large multifunctional governmental bodies. These servers no longer have to be separate computers as they become such when they join the blockchain network after downloading the application and the whole database. While the latter is an essential cryptoelement, the mechanism of authorization is still vague.

There is a solution called API – Application programmable interface. Such programs are user-friendly adaptations of usual server-grade calculations. They are akin to software, albeit with more opportunities to enact changes in the whole network. At the same time authorization is serviced by certain fields where a person is required to fill in the ID or similar proof. API advantages are evident in banking where the client feels more empowered and can settle payments without calling the bank directly. The institution itself processes these transactions automatically as well.

Unfortunately, one of the unresolved issues is the introduction of a full national database. Only in this case a basis for verifying potential voters can be created. This is the first milestone. Surely, a blockchain-based voting system can be used on a small scale, but the input data should be consistent with the output. That means only relevant votes can participate. As it is extremely difficult to maintain several databases with overlapping information (personal or otherwise), a unified solution is definitely required.

Furthermore, we still need to create conditions for closed ballots as this idea is usually sidelined in the course of developing cryptoassets. A balance between confidentiality and transparency should be struck. The results may be published at certain points eliminating the necessity of exit polls.

Real-time consequences remain a mystery. Few people believe the machine; therefore, trust should be built in advance. Moreover, our society in general doesn’t seem ready to accept e-voting without human element. It looks like Catch 22 – people can hack elections, but we trust people more than machines.

Are fair and tamper-free elections truly possible? The ongoing hype about new technologies hampers the gist – it is we who vote, and we who decide. Thus, a considerable amount of time may pass before society adopts e-voting on large scale [2].

Indeed, blockchain itself is not an end-game solution. Machine learning and AI are new technologies which can help as well as act to the detriment of any system depending on the underlying algorithm.

In the future quantum computing may pose a real threat to decentralized voting. As of now, these new machines are designed or special tasks and cannot be adapted to tamper into elections or disrupt software upgrades. More sophisticated cryptography will be developed to forestall such events as is the case with some cryptocurrencies that are created with the idea in mind that mining should be limited. In practice, such currencies do not require a whole lot of computing power that is necessary to issue the well-known Bitcoin.

Yet blockchain-based election is not simply a theoretical concept. One of the first forays into this field is the recent election in Sierra Leone. Around 70% of votes were recorded via specialized tech developed by Leonardo Gammar of Agora.

“Anonymized votes/ballots are being recorded on Agora’s blockchain, which will be publicly available for any interested party to review, count and validate,” said Gammar [4]. “This is the first time a government election is using blockchain technology.”

While this is far from a digital democracy as a substantial minority is recorded old school, such elections serve as a proof of concept. Moreover, another goal is achieved – the costs of running elections actually decline.

In conclusion, decentralized ledger technology is fundamentally able to simplify the process of voting on any level. There are certain implications that should be addressed beforehand but the opportunities of combining anonymized ballots with transparency of polls seems enticing.

Every economy aspiring to be a leader is heavily reliant upon the products of progress which include all inventions ranging from the wheel up to the quantum. Astonishing as it may seem, people have always exploited technology for insignificant or short-term goals.

For instance, rarely can we avoid pointing our fingers at Alfred Nobel whose dynamite became a trademark of early terrorism. Similar feelings dawned on Einstein when he had heard about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Modern tech is no different as early adopters rush to implement cutting edge solutions. Apparently, scientists and scholars are simply seekers of knowledge whereas the invention itself is impersonal. Knowledge is pure. It is people who add meaning. Therefore, it is we who misuse tech. And we can put it to good use.


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