Today, distrust is a powerfully disturbing word. Governments cannot trust the public, and the public have little trust in their elected representatives. The process of building trust (or, building it back) is mostly a foregone conclusion, since every democracy by design takes this trust for granted. And by so doing, takes us (the public) for granted. We do not think that governments are acting in our best interests when they take us for granted, and governments are increasingly vigilant of popular agitations that decry their authority.

Free and fair elections are the only guarantee of an effective democracy. Conversely, any democratic institution must begin by guaranteeing its members the right to a free and fair election.

In reality, however, allegations and counter-allegations of voter fraud continue unabated in the United States. While extensive research has, time and again, revealed falsity in allegations of fraud, the elections of 2016, 2018 and 2020 could not escape the web of lies and propaganda. By questioning the integrity of the most precious emblem of our democracy – the elections, vengeful allegations have driven fear, insecurity, and hatred among a significant portion of the US population. Initiatives such as The Lincoln Project despite being perceived as objectively influential, has ultimately proven ineffective in bridging popular divisiveness.

How to do away with distrust in a system that seems to automatically breed it? The answer is a true liberal democracy. Democracy 2.0, or true democracy is the idea of eliminating distrust by closing the gap between people and their governments. What does that mean exactly? It means that people fully and finally own their governments. And how is that possible? That is possible only when governments as central authority cease to exist. Democracy 2.0 imagines a world where the control is finally restored to the 99%, and the only self-governing authority is a fully decentralized technology called blockchain.

Electronic Voting, or not

The basis of every democracy is, or should be a free and fair election. The question of “how people vote” is a key fundamental here, but one that is addressed variously in different democracies. Many countries such as the United States for instance, are wary of installing an electronic voting system, while India and Brazil have been using one for decades now. Netherlands on the other hand has discontinued its use, and Estonia continues to retain a full paper-ballot as backup. In order to understand why democracies have historically exhibited this divergence apropos electronic voting, it is important to first look at its pros and cons.

Research in Brazil shows that the adoption of this technology has led to greater de-facto enfranchisement by reducing residual votes. This is a significant achievement, and one that has contributed specifically to the empowerment of largely uneducated voters. Electronic Voting Machines (or EVMs) also come with such obvious benefits as: ease of use, fast counting (beneficial for larger populations), and lowered expenses. But as recent findings in India show, EVMs can and are indeed easily hacked. That is primarily the reason why paper ballots in Estonia overwrite their corresponding electronic votes if these exist. The overarching assumption is, paper-ballot is more reliable.

But paper-ballot comes with its own set of undeniable issues. Ballot-rigging takes place in the form of vote-count manipulation. Tampering with the process during any of its stages — recording, maintaining or tallying — is not too difficult to accomplish, and is typically followed by the destruction of such evidence that would allow an audit or verification.

In India, although EVMs have been in use since the late 1990s, charges of machine-rigging are still common and widespread. These charges however remain mostly unsubstantiated, because they are not duly looked into by the Election Commission of India — a central authority overseeing nationwide voting regulations. What the ECI does instead is make an advanced determination as regards to the transparency of EVMs, and thereby pre-empts any attempt at contradiction. As a result, when people lose faith in the fairness and neutrality of this central authority, they automatically lose faith in the elections, and in democracy as such.

Distrust is thus tied to the existence of an authority that is central in nature, and backed by the legitimacy of a democratically elected government. The operations of such an authority are, in the eyes of public unverifiable and subject to government manipulation.

Where blockchain can help

A blockchain-based electronic voting system can help alleviate issues of distrust, and boost integrity in elections. The promise lies in the mechanism of decentralization, or the elimination of a singular and centralized authority. When information is validated through multiple participating nodes, the chances of manipulation go drastically down as it would require a mass-collusion of participants transcending party lines and chains of authority. Although not theoretically impossible, it is statistically the unlikeliest of all possible scenarios of voter-fraud.

Blockchain is the most renowned form of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT): a distributed record of information/transaction that, while being open to inspection by every participating member, is controlled by none. It is an information storage facility where blocks of information are validated and stored by members in a sequential manner. Not one of these blocks are alterable, which means the system offers a fully auditable record of data.

For election purposes, a permissioned blockchain would consist of members who are representatives of different parties, and are known to the public. Besides being able to accommodate independent bodies to monitor voting, such a system can be implemented at every stage of the electoral process: registration, storage and counting, thereby eliminating chances of fraud at each of these. Even in the absence of oversight, at no point can a single agent make changes without an agreement that involves every other validator/node within the subset.

Challenges and testing

A blockchain-based online voting system is more secure and transparent than anything else we know. While the advantages are clear and indicative of greater de-facto enfranchisement, the primary challenge in implementation lies with infrastructure and cost. Maintaining a blockchain requires high-level technical expertise and corresponding expenses. Even so, scalable blockchain-based voting systems have been used in smaller elections albeit with limited functionality. In 2016, the Iowa caucus results were stored in a blockchain using VoteWatcher. A number of states in the US now allow online voting via blockchain based apps.

There is reason to believe that the efficacy and overall efficiency of blockchain in conducting elections is an easy sell. But there doesn’t seem to be enough money to buy it. When in fact, the thing that’s really holding blockchain back, is the understandable passivity of wealthier democracies in dealing with it.  There’s nothing that strikes at the heart of unauthorized authority like the rationale of a blockchain.

Blockchain and election.org

Blockchain technology forms the soul of election.org. At a fundamental level, my project is geared to find solutions that seek independence from central authority, because I believe that centralization of power is the single greatest impediment to the working of a democracy.

election.org offers an unmatched ecosystem of open-source projects, products, and initiatives — both autonomous and collaborative — backed by high-quality domains we already own. At the heart of each of these — from blockchain social media to blockchain-based surveys and polls — is the promise of truly partcipatory democracy: the kind that is the only hope of a better tomorrow.

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