Smartmatic: the role of blockchain in enabling elections

Can blockchain make democracy more secure and transparent?

Smartmatic is in the business of building online voting platforms. With allegations that the 2016 election was rigged by Russia,[1] easily hacked voting machines,[2] and the infamous presidential election in 2000 in which millions of votes were tossed due to a punch card malfunction, the idea of throwing more technology at the US elections sounds like a dangerous proposition. However, Smartmatic’s online voting platforms have been used across five continents, including countries such as Estonia, Netherlands, Belgium, Armenia, the Philippines, and Venezuela – where the company was founded.

Smartmatic is responsible for conducting the world’s first national online election in Estonia.[3] Though there are a number of companies working on voting technology, they hold the lead in securing government contracts for online election technology by country, which in some countries covers the entire “Vote Supply Chain” (hereafter VSC).

To understand the VSC, there are five steps in the supply chain from voter to ballot box:

  • Register voters who eligible to vote
  • Confirm voter’s identity
  • Anonymously and securely transmit vote from voter to ballot box
  • Report vote tally at the county or state level ballot box to central reporting authority
  • Count and verify votes casts by the central reporting authority

With the rise of Bitcoin, blockchain’s application for voting has already caught the attention of the European Parliament. Their internal think tank EPRS published an assessment on the applications of blockchain for voting,[4] and a minority party in Denmark has already implemented blockchain for an internal election.

What makes blockchain so appealing is its potential to make online voting more secure and transparent. Blockchain is a permanent cryptographic record that is stored in a distributed network. Unlike a record stored in one computer or server managed by the government, it is easy to detect if a record is tampered with or altered from its original submission because all other nodes in the network will have a copy of the original record.

Smartmatic is under pressure to implement blockchain technology to improve their online platform. Despite being a first mover in online voting technology, Smartmatic is at risk of losing contracts to startups specializing in blockchain such as: Votem[5] and Follow My Vote.

So far, Smartmatic has implemented blockchain technology for the last step of VSC. For the 2016 election, the Utah Republican Party choose their presidential nominee using Smartmatic’s voting platform.[6] The voting platform used blockchain to monitor any inconsistencies once votes were cast. Smartmatic is also researching and testing the technology that would enable individual voters to verify votes using a blockchain.[7]

While the idea of shifting the entire VSC online using blockchain technology is great for generating exciting news headlines, there are serious concerns for online voting, that is preventing many governments from adopting the technology, with or without blockchain. Much of the criticism centers around the difficultly of preventing malware from infiltrating a device and submitting a false vote before it is recorded in the blockchain.[8]

There are also concerns about protecting voter privacy. Although cryptographic keys are used to secure data, nothing about blockchain’s technology or the distributed network where information is stored ensures that data such as the voter’s identity cannot be hacked.

While Smartmatic should continue to develop its blockchain technology for online voting, Smartmatic has an enormous opportunity to use blockchain technology for voter registration, the first step in the vote supply chain. There is a great need for voter registration records that individuals can verify, especially in the US, where we have had issues with voters being purged from the voter roll on election day.[9]

In addition, there is less incentive or consequence for hacking in the US because voter registration rolls are public record (though its accessibility varies by state). Needless to say, a security breach in voter registration files would not carry the same consequences as a hacked election.

Individually verifiable voter registration records online will have a positive impact on providing voters assurance and clarity that they will be able to vote on election day. This is particularly impactful in the US where only 43% of Americans believe that their vote is counted.[10]

What are other applications of blockchain technology that can improve public confidence in the voting process? Do you think that the right technology can enable online voting even in a high-stakes national elections such as in the US?

 

 

 

 

[1] David E. Sanger and Scott Shane, “Russian Hackers Acted to Aid Trump in Election, U.S. Says,” New York Times, December 9, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/us/obam a-russia-election-hack.html, accessed November 2017.

[2] Brian Barrett, “America’s Electronic Voting Machines are Scarily Easy Targets,” Wired, August 2, 2016, https://www.wired.com/2016/08/americas-voting-machines-arent-ready-election/, accessed November 2017.

[3] Kobie, Nicole, “Why electronic voting isn’t secure – but may be safe enough” The Guardia, March 30, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/30/why-electronic-voting-is-not-secure, accessed November 2017.

[4] Philip Boucher, “How blockchain technology could change our lives,” European Parliamentary Research Service, February 2017, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/IDAN/2017/581948/EPRS_IDA(20 17)581948_EN.pdf, accessed November 2017.

[5] Dan Lohrmann, “Can Blockchain Technology Secure Your Vote?” Government Technology (blog), April 29, 2017, http://www.govtech.com/blogs/lohrmann-on-cybersecurity/can-blockchain-technology-secure-your-vote.html, accessed November 2017.

[6] Issie Lapowsky, “Utah’s Online Caucus Gives Security Experts Heart Attacks,” Wired, March 21, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2016/03/security-experts-arent-going-like-utahs-online-primary/, accessed November 2017.

[7] Mike Summers, “Online Voting Isn’t as Flawed as You Think – Just Ask Estonia.” IEEE Spectrum, October 26, 2016,

https://spectrum.ieee.org/telecom/internet/online-voting-isnt-as-flawed-as-you-thinkjust-ask-estonia, accessed November 2017.

[8] Issie Lapowsky, “Utah’s Online Caucus Gives Security Experts Heart Attacks,” Wired, March 21, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2016/03/security-experts-arent-going-like-utahs-online-primary/, accessed November 2017.

[9] Michael D. Regan, “Officials investigating why 126,000 voters were purged from NY roll,” PBS News Hour, April 23, 2016, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/officials-investigating-why-126000-voters-were-purged-from-ny-rolls, accessed November 2017.

[10] Betsy Cooper, Daniel Cox, Ph.D., Rachel Lienesch, Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., “The Divide Over America’s Future: 1950 or 2050? Findings from the 2016 American Values Survey,” PRRI, October 25, 2016, https://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/PRRI-2016-American-Values-Survey.pdf, accessed November 2017.

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13 thoughts on “Smartmatic: the role of blockchain in enabling elections

  1. Great area of application for Blockchain! I was wondering if this decreases the overall cost of election process? By bringing in efficiencies of scope one would assume an automatic decrease in overall costs, but specifically in case of technology disruption it would be interesting to understand what steps/jobs in the VSC would be disrupted and besides security where else opposition for the idea might erupt from.

  2. Fun read! While I love the idea of bringing blockchain to US voting, I’m curious if you believe the current US government has the operational ability to implement a new voting system. My understanding is that most of the voting in the US is regulated more by state governments than the federal government (even for federal elections), and a change like this would need to be implemented on a state by state level. I could easily see a scenario where states with a more affluent and computer-literate electorate begin to use this system in the next few years once its efficacy has been proven (e.g., California, Connecticut, Maryland). However, since these states largely lean left, the idea of this voting system might become politicized in a way that makes the remaining states wary of a voting system that is primarily utilized in more Democratic states.

    Do you think it’s currently possible to get full state buy-in to a radical change in voting procedure? Which politicians would need to champion this effort to get a bipartisan solution on voting overhaul?

  3. Wonderful concept! I agree with the concept of applying blockchain to elections, and see a number of technologies that could complement the technology and make it suitable for online voting. Numerous concepts are used in commercial applications today. Two-factor identification is an easy way to verify identities in real-time. The most common example is sending a text message to your phone to login to a bank website – it is one thing to steal an ID or hack an email, it is another to take another’s cell phone and keep it activated. Blockchain can also be combined with other novel security measures – biometric fingerprint readers or face recognition software on phones and laptops for examples. Combining 3 requirements for identification – encrypted decentralized blockchain ID information, real-time two-factor identification and local biometrics – could combine to create a robust system extremely resistant to hacking – the company Civic is commercializing this concept (https://www.civic.com/). Key concerns include ensuring all communities and socioeconomic classes have access to this technology, yet 77% of Americans own a smartphone – given that facial recognition only requires a camera, and fingerprint scanning has been prevalent since 2013, these technologies seem to be within reach of the general public (http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/).

  4. Super interesting essay! What an interesting application of blockchain technology. In addition to the risks you mention, I am concerned about two additional risks/downsides. First, given the large scale of elections, I wonder how feasible it is to use blockchain technology from a computational and cost standpoint. As we see with Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, transactions are approved by “miners” (individuals/groups that provide the processing power to mine and record the transactions in the public ledger). As the number of users and transactions have increased over time, this has led to a significant slowdown in the system (e.g. taking days, instead of minutes, for a transaction to be recorded) as well as an increase in costs (both in terms of incentive fees paid to miners as well as computing costs). I wonder if these problems would also translate over to a voting application. Second, one of the things we can observe about the blockchain technology is that a “hard fork” can occur in the ledger. Essentially, a parallel blockchain can be established and operate independently of the original chain. Once this happens, you essentially have two different, independent views of the world. If this were to happen in a voting system, for example through a hack, that would be disastrous because we would essentially have two different election outcomes. However, Smartmatic and other leaders in this field could develop mitigating security features that could combat these concerns.

  5. This is a really interesting concept. I agree with what other commentators, particularly Matt Michel and StarP, have raised in terms of technology adoption concerns and risks of hacking a purely digital election system. You also do a good job outlining and addressing some of these concerns.

    I think the most compelling application of blockchain technology to elections is an uneven one – employing it selectively along the VSC. For instance, I think the point your raise on the need for better and more reliable technology to replace archaic voter roll databases is essential. Using blockchain technology to add transparency and integrity to voter registration seems like a win-win – those with concerns about voter fraud will have the confidence of a transparent and distributed record of voters, while more people will be able to register and confidently participate in elections without risk of having their record incorrectly purged.

    At the ballot box itself, however, I do worry that the 2016 election shows how digital security and information assurance best practices always lag behind the development and adoption of new technology. I believe that old fashioned paper ballots actually are the most difficult system of voting to manipulate (provided there are no major ballot flaws, a la Florida 2000…). A system by which individuals could register to vote and verify their registration via blockchain but vote in hard copy would be an interesting hybrid solution to increase the integrity of our elections.

    1. Thanks Erika for the interesting read!

      Picking up on Erika’s second question about the place for technology in a US national election, I’d like propose a different view from yours above, Danny. I see your points and agree entirely that old-fashioned paper is essentially unhackable because it’s so incredibly messy and fragmented and there is no single point of control. But I wonder how great the risk of hacking really is, and haven’t we hacked our own vote already by creating a system in which only a fraction of Americans choose to vote, even in highest-level elections where it’s less than 60%? I see one of the greatest promises of digital voting technologies as convenience and by extension, inclusion.

      I expect in response you would say that we’re a long way from there yet and Smartmatic’s technology does not solve the key problem of verifying identity, and I would agree.

  6. Interesting to see blockchain logic being used in forms outside of the financial sector and becoming a way to decentralize various validation steps of the VSC. Another consideration to take into account building on Matt’s point of fragmented voter systems is trying to merge the various chains and a potential patchwork of state implementations at a national level.

    Another potential cause for concern is the ability to make voting “too transparent” if a singular blockchain was used to verify identity and report vote tally similar to the current Bitcoin implementation versus a Monero implementation of the system which would keep all personally identifiable information secret from those servicing or receiving outputs from the system.

  7. This is super fascinating! There are great benefits to the digitization of the election supply chain, specifically the voter registration component. It has the potential to increase accessibility to elections and likely result in higher civic participation. At the state, when we digitized service delivery, more individuals from low-income areas within Massachusetts were able to complete transactions with the government.

    However, I think it’s important to underscore the issue of security. Information is doubling faster than ever. Cyber terrorism is an exploding problem and hackers are responsive to their environment. As such, they have become more sophisticated. We have observed this with the evolution of cyber attacks from a few years ago (Target) to today (OPM, Anthem, etc.) The way blockchain works, there is still potential for false data records (as you mentioned).

    Another concern I have around this is the agency problem. Matt alluded to one component of it – does the government have resources and capability to even implement something like this? But, before even thinking about that, my worry is who will own the data? Especially if government partners with other stakeholders for the implementation, there will be a broader governance issue around data ownership.

  8. This was a very interesting article !
    I think Russia is accused of attempting to influence the election rather than rigging it in favor of Donald Trump. Given the proven susceptibility of technology to tampering, regardless of what technology advocates say, it seems unwise to leave actual voting to electronic devices. Some parts of the VSC should be electronic, such as voter registration or party affiliation changes, etc., the act of voting itself may be better protected by a low tech process. Could it be that the best of both worlds – voting integrity and record-keeping could already be in use for ballot scanners, which can take a hard copy, record the votes and report them centrally as a preliminary voting record with the hard copies being kept just in case there is a problem?

  9. Great article! In the U.S. so much can be done to improve the voting process and make voting more accessible and convenient to voters. The country has a lot to gain from better functioning elections and a higher voter turnout as people will feel less disenfranchised and a more accurate sample of the population will be represented. I think this is one of the most exciting and interesting applications for blockchain and one that will be a great test of the technology’s ability to be rolled out in a highly visible and high stakes setting. I agree with you that the technology should be rolled out in a piecemeal way, streamlining some of the more menial phases in the voting process while getting the public more comfortable with the idea and allowing other blockchain applications to be proved out. I also believe, however, that given enough time people will accept blockchain as a legitimate technology capable of handling the entire voting process and enabling online voting. In a world where blockchain is responsible for maintaining people’s financial accounts, there is no reason for people to not trust the same fundamental technology when going to the polls.

  10. This is wonderful! Thank you so much for writing.

    I want to pick up on Jason Bourne’s and StarrP’s comments about costs to identify a perhaps larger challenge to implementation in the U.S., particularly with the current government: An aversion to investment of any kind. I do not know how much a transition would cost, and how it would affect current government actors’ jobs, but I do think that implementing this would likely require some degree of up front capital that the government might not be wiling to spend.

    In addition, I think we have to acknowledge the reality that there may be ulterior motives for people to express concern about voter fraud, which is definitely one of the upsides to this program, as Danny points out. In the case of the United States, many argue that accusations of “voter fraud” are actually tools used as an excuse to suppress the vote of people in low income communities of color, which generally vote Democrat. (This leaves aside the possibility that federal officials may or may not collude with a foreign government to gain an advantage in an election!) The reality is that such individuals might take advantage of Americans’ distrust of change – and distrust of the media – to delay the implementation of such a powerful tool.

  11. Very interesting! Clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement in the US VSC and blockchain sounds like a promising idea! One way to prevent privacy issues, devices mal-function, and the likes is to still hold elections at specific places, just like it is today, so that users vote from the same devices. I believe the civic act of going out to vote, instead of voting from the quietness and isolation of your own screen, can also have a positive impact in terms of social capital, so it would be great to keep it. I wonder if somehow blockchain could also be used to fight fake news, tracking sources and checking accuracy.

  12. Erika, this is dope.

    I am also curious about the extent to which the voting systems are interconnected. Is this usually done at the state level? Or is each precinct its own beast that would be a stand alone network? Moreover, since this is a secure technology that will by no means be inexpensive, would it be feasible to propose a national voting system? This way, the resources of the Federal Government, which far outstrip that of the states, could be brought to bear on the problem, which would make it more likely to implemented in a timely manner.

    Thanks for the read!

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