The cryptocurrency Bitcoin has risen into public consciousness over the past few years. It is the first digital currency to reach this level of success and notoriety. Bitcoin is based on a decades old cryptographic concept called a blockchain. As people and companies seek new ways to conduct elections that make better sense in our high tech world, several startups have proposed using blockchains, or even Bitcoin itself, to conduct elections. Using Bitcoin (or a blockchain) as an election system is a bad idea that really doesn’t make sense. While blockchains can be useful in the election process, they are only appropriate for use in one small part of a larger election system. A blockchain is basically a public database of information that is distributed across many different computers so that all users are able to verify that they have the same overall data even if some of the computers go down. There is no need to trust a central server or authority. A blockchain is a fundamental concept in cryptography that existed for decades prior to being used in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
… Using blockchains for voting has been considered by academics for decades, but only as a thought experiment. If you ask any cryptographer who knows the basics of cryptocurrencies (remember, blockchains were invented by cryptographers) if elections should be conducted using blockchains, they would laugh and say, “Hell no, that doesn’t even make sense!” While blockchains are great at securely storing information, they do literally nothing to solve the many, many challenges that elections face, like the necessity for voter anonymity, the ability to determine that only eligible voters cast votes, that only legal votes are tabulated, and that ballots and ballot boxes cannot be manipulated by anyone, etc… and the list goes on. Blockchains do nothing to address any of these critical issues.
The idea is basically to give every eligible voter a very small fraction of a Bitcoin that they would ‘spend’ on a particular candidate in a particular race on Election Day. All the votes would be added to the Bitcoin blockchain, so it would contain the election results in a secure and publicly verifiable way. There are two problems with this. First, as discussed above, storing votes in a blockchain does nothing to address other security and process concerns surrounding elections. And second, because Bitcoin’s blockchain is by its very nature a public ledger, it would be impossible to maintain voter anonymity and to keep voters from proving how they voted, both of which are fundamental tenets of elections in the United States.