The 2016 United Presidential Election is approaching fast. Whether votes go to real estate developer Donald Trump, anti-virus developer John McAfee or Former US Secretary Hillary Clinton, the way the electorate expresses their opinions, the voting system, is in dire need of replacement.
Voters in the United States cast their ballots at polling stations around the nation. Optical scan or direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines are commonly used in polling stations, which replaced lever and punch card equipment.
Funds for the replacement machines came from the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), signed into Federal law by President Bush in 2002, following the controversial Presidential elections in 2000.
On November 8, 2000, the Florida Division of Elections reported that Bush had won the state. Over a month later, after multiple court proceedings and decisions the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide manual recount.
The recount was hampered by the paper-based punch card voting machines. There was an unusually high number of ballot cards voting for more candidates than is allowed, as well as fewer than the minimum required, including none at all. The Court later ruled that there was a violation in using different standards of counting in different counties.
HAVA mandates that all states and localities must upgrade their election procedures, including registration processes, poll worker training and the voting machines. Despite these efforts over the years, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) issued a warning in January 2014, which outlined an “impending crisis,” driven by the wear and tear of voting machines purchased over a decade ago.
“Jurisdictions do not have the money to purchase new machines, and legal and market constraints prevent the development of machines they would want even if they had funds.”
- Presidential Commission on Election Administration
A study called America’s voting Machines at Risk, co-authored by Lawrence Norden and Christopher Famighetti, revealed that 43 states will be using electronic voting machines in the 2016 presidential elections which are at least 10 years old. According to the study, current machines are “perilously close to the end of most systems' expected lifespan.”
The study was based on interviews with more than 100 election officials and specialists in all 50 states, conducted during 10 months of independent research. Whilst looking at the challenges associated with outdated equipment, the report states that new technologies are the answer to the “impending crisis.”
“Technology has changed dramatically in the last decade, but America's voting machines are rapidly aging out.”
- America’s Voting Machines at Risk
Blockchain Technologies Corp, (BTC) is a company hoping to replace the existing machines with a secure, open-source solution, that uses distributed ledger technology known as the blockchain. “America’s voting machine technology – or lack thereof – is a looming crisis,” states the company.
“Many states use voting machines that are over 10 years old that are not only antiquated and failing, they are also becoming increasingly expensive to maintain as parts are no longer manufactured. Election fraud undermines the very fabric of democracy.”
BTC developed Blockchain Apparatus, a platform for creating non-financial blockchain records. It can be customised to a client’s specific requirements, enabling it to evolve alongside blockchain technology. “The core of the technology is the use of the decentralized consensus to ensure integrity of information – the data – that current centralized and human-dependent systems cannot provide without the risk of corruption, malfeasance, or error,” states BTC.
According to a Motherboard article, the prototype looks much like a fax machine with a screen. The process will not change drastically, as voters will still fill out an election ballot, but at the bottom there are three QR codes. Each code represents a blockchain address, a ballot ID, and and an election ID.
While the machine can use bitcoin’s blockchain, in this particular configuration the machine uses VoteUnits, a blockchain token designed specifically for this purpose. Similar to Bitcoin, the code is opensource, but transaction fees will not be required.
Each candidate has a unique address or wallet, where the votes are sent. This is where the system adds an extra level of transparency, through a block explorer, where the exact number of votes in each candidates wallet can be viewed in real time.
The company is quick to point out that the system will not be connected to the internet during an election, which could open up the possibility of vote manipulation.
The machine then burns the ballots to a DVD, encased in a chassis to prevent electronic manipulation, which can then be reviewed in the event of a dispute .
According to the team behind the voting machine, there is only so much that blockchain can do. Problems with erroneous or malicious software will not be solved by the technology. Providing accurate audit trails is a start, but will not fix all the issues faced with voting equipment.
“We are almost ready to revolutionize universal access to secure voting. Keep an eye out; perhaps we’ll meet again at the next election.”
Blockchain technology has many applications, and is slated to disrupt many industries. One of the first attempts to tackle voting, was the aptly named VoteCoin. Early in 2013, Charles Level started posting theories, ideological concepts, and started various discussions about the concept.
“Vote Coin is an open source voting system. It was inspired by bitcoin in 2012, and allows for citizens to vote for candidates with a transparent system.”
In the blog, Level concedes that cryptographic based voting systems can be traced back well over 15 years.