With the U.S. heading into a pivotal midterm election, little progress has been made on ensuring the integrity of voting systems—a concern that retook the spotlight when the 2016 presidential election ushered Donald Trump into the White House amid allegations of foreign interference. A raft of start-ups has been hawking what they see as a revolutionary solution: repurposing blockchains, best known as the digital transaction ledgers for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, to record votes. Backers say these internet-based systems would increase voter access to elections while improving tamper-resistance and public auditability. But experts in both cybersecurity and voting see blockchains as needlessly complicated, and no more secure than other online ballots. Existing voting systems do leave plenty of room for suspicion: Voter impersonation is theoretically possible (although investigations have repeatedly found negligible rates for this in the U.S.); mail-in votes can be altered or stolen; election officials might count inaccurately; and nearly every electronic voting machine has proved hackable. Not surprisingly, a Gallup poll published prior to the 2016 election found a third of Americans doubted votes would be tallied properly.
… Although blockchains’ most prominent uses are monetary, there is no reason they cannot store other types of data—and votes would seem an excellent fit. An ideal voting system resists corruption by authorities or hackers and empowers citizens and auditors to agree on an election’s outcome. Conveniently, auditable consensus among parties who do not fully trust one another is exactly what blockchains offer.
Each of the companies buying into this vision brings its own flavor. One start-up called Votem built its systems around academic research on letting voters check that individual votes were counted. Voatz, another start-up, supplements the blockchain with biometric identity verification, using smartphones’ and tablets’ built-in fingerprint readers and facial recognition to authenticate voters. Democracy Earth offers the ability to delegate your vote to another voter whose judgment you trust. Smartmatic, a prominent voting technology firm, integrates a blockchain into its broader suite of voting services. Products from these companies and others are attracting tentative interest from U.S. political parties, the U.S. military (pdf) and governments including those of Brazil and Switzerland.
Still, neither cryptographers nor election experts are impressed with blockchains’ potential to improve election integrity. Noted cryptographer Ron Rivest of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sums up the bleak consensus among academics: “I don’t know of any who think it’s a good idea, and within one or two years I expect all these companies to die.”