Will the much-discussed EVMs be placed in museums in the near future? Is the electoral infrastructure of the country going to be digitised further, with the possibility of remote voting coming around the corner? In fact, the Election Commission of India is doing a blockchain project with IIT-Madras and some eminent scientists. “We are very hopeful that by the 2024 Lok Sabha elections you will see a lot of fundamental differences in the way we are working, including this (e-voting),” the former Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said recently.
While cryptocurrencies are under fire in many places, blockchain is its real positive inheritance. In fact, blockchain technology is going to be widely used in land registration, enlisting stock market trading, banking and to usher in the digital economy in general. It might bring a paradigm shift in voting as well.
Starting from broken pieces of pots ostraka in Greek as ballots in ancient Greece, the voting system has evolved dramatically. While Internet voting has been practised in the digital republic of Estonia since 2005, Sierra Leone’s 2018 election is an example of blockchain technology expanding its footprints in polls. Subsequently, Russia launched a blockchain-based electronic voting system pilot project and Tsukuba became the first Japanese city to introduce blockchain digital voting. And most of us didn’t notice that history was created in the 2020 US presidential elections when a blockchain-based electronic voting system via a voting app called ‘Voatz’ was implemented in Utah county.
How is blockchain-based voting done? A recent report of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) illustrates a possible model—a straw man proposal for blockchain as a ballot box: “The voting authority, which maintains a voter registry, has each registered user create a public/private key pair, and each user sends their public key to the registry. Then, the voter registry spends one coin to each public key. To vote, each user spends their coin to the candidate of their choice. After a period, everyone can look at the blockchain, total up each candidate’s coins, and select the one with the most coins as the winner.” Although this may not be an ideal situation, it might help understand blockchain-based voting to some extent.
In fact, blockchain is a type of ledger of information or database that stores data in blocks that are chained together. It is distributed across various nodes (computers) on a peer-to-peer network for the purpose of ensuring integrity and verifiability of data stored on the ledger—an updated copy of the records is available to all stakeholders at all times. Once a block is filled with data, it is chained onto the previous block, which makes the data chained together in chronological order. Due to its distributed nature, it is almost impossible for a single person to hack everyone’s ledger, ensuring security against cyberattacks.
Blockchain technology usually allows people to verify that their votes are recorded and counted correctly without compromising their anonymity. Moreover, anyone may be able to check the counting without the secrecy being hampered. However, there are security concerns in blockchain-based e-voting too. The blockchain-based system used in the September 2019 city council elections of Moscow was shown to be gravely vulnerable. Also, during the online voting on the 2020 constitutional amendment in Russia, a media outlet claimed that it was possible to access and decrypt the votes stored on the blockchain due to flawed cryptographic implementation.
When West Virginia piloted the ‘Voatz’ app during the 2018 US midterm election, there was an attempted hack on the app. The above-mentioned MIT report, while reviewing the American pilot e-voting, heavily criticised the mobile app-based system. Possibilities of targeted Denial-of-Service attacks—where an attacker would be in a position to block traffic from the system, effectively preventing, or at the very least delaying, the registration of votes—cannot be ruled out. These researchers found that Voatz’s use of a third-party vendor for voter identification and verification poses potential privacy issues for users. And there’s little doubt that it’s difficult to prevent coercers or vote buyers in remote voting.
Not every expert is so critical. And hopefully, the Indian system would come out after considering and preventing the above mentioned and some other possible vulnerabilities. In the US, experts mostly criticised the weaknesses of the mobile app-based voting. However, will app-based remote voting be allowed in India’s blockchain-based e-voting system? Maybe not. Earlier, the then Senior Deputy Election Commissioner Sandeep Saxena explained that, to cast a vote, electors would still have to physically reach a designated venue and the concept is a “two-way electronic voting system, in a controlled environment, on white-listed IP devices on dedicated internet lines, enabled with biometric devices and a web camera”. It doesn’t mean voting from home, which is “anytime-anywhere-any device”.
The evolution of voting is imperative. Such technological moves forward are inevitable and welcome, at least for a country like India that has nearly a billion voters. Blockchain has the potential to bring transparency in voting while maintaining security and anonymity. Also, results can be gathered and processed quickly and straight after the voting is finished. The common electorate, however, might struggle to understand such a technology. In reality, common people rely much on the institutions and also on their political leaders. We know that the EVM debate got momentum repeatedly in the country. How easy will it be to bring the major political parties into confidence to avoid any possible distrust before rolling in blockchain-based technology in voting?
Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata