The 2020 election cycle poses many challenges to election security, voter integrity, voter confidence and voter safety. Renewed efforts from threat actors to disrupt the elections process, combined with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, raise serious questions about what Election Day will look like.
Many argue that integrating blockchain technology into the election process will address these new concerns and improve the integrity and security of elections. While efforts to leverage blockchain technology in elections are noble, there is still much for election officials to understand about blockchain technology:
What is blockchain technology and how could it secure the election?
Blockchain technology takes many forms but typically consists of a decentralized public ledger made of records, or “blocks.” In theory, the decentralized nature and mathematics of blockchain technology would improve the integrity and auditability of elections: Its design relies on distributed copies, across many nodes, of each entry on the ledger for immutable proof of each ballot cast. Researchers and private organizations have referenced these blockchain elements as ways to respond to old and emerging threats.
However, election officials must understand how blockchain technology would be integrated into the current election infrastructure. Voting is currently limited to in-person voting or mail-in ballots. Blockchain technology would require a digital platform and almost certainly require an internet connection, two things that are not easily accessible to many Americans.
How would blockchain integrate into the current elections infrastructure?
U.S. elections rely almost entirely on in-person voting, with mail-in ballots accepted for documented exceptions. Transitioning to a blockchain-based solution would only be feasible in the context of remote voting. There are many moving parts to elections infrastructure, including voting machines, voter registration databases, voting tabulation technology and election management systems. All of these components are essential to ensuring every American’s ballot is properly counted. If we move to blockchain, what technology requirements would exist for each voter to cast a ballot? How would voters verify their identity online? Would blockchain solutions require everyone to vote online?
In addition, blockchain does not exist in a vacuum. It requires extensive support from human personnel and other technology. The expertise for managing instances of blockchain technology remains scarce. Many state and local elections officials often have minimal technical resources to meet basic business requirements. Incorporating challenging and largely unproven blockchain technology into their environment would be an onerous task.
Is blockchain technology currently in use in American elections?
Remote blockchain voting solutions have been used in local elections in West Virginia, Oregon, Utah and Colorado. However, these initiatives were short-lived following research that the remote voting services were found to be vulnerable to attack. Academic and governmental organizations have expressed concern about the vulnerability of these new technologies. Despite significant interest in the technology, blockchain continues to only be implemented on a limited scale.
What authority do federal, state, and local governments have in the authorization or prohibition of blockchain technology?
The American election system is designed to be decentralized, with most authority at the state and local level. This guarantees that elections are conducted in the most secure and accessible way for citizens. What regulations should be in place for blockchain technology? Would there be direction from the federal government regarding blockchain? How can government ensure the integrity of the vendors offering blockchain solutions to elections? Third-party technology used in 2020 Iowa Primary elections led to confusion and concerns over the validity of results. While the software solution used in Iowa did not leverage blockchain technology, this is proof that without proper testing, new technological solutions can complicate election operations. It is crucial that election officials address supply chain risks and vet firms offering election software.
Will blockchain technology ever be ready to implement into the voting process?
There is still much to learn about the costs and benefits of blockchain technology. The potential benefits that blockchain could provide to the elections process cannot be discounted. Improvements to election integrity and auditability are attractive technologies. However, the American election system is not quite ready to implement blockchain technology on a large scale.
There is little doubt that officials must address the concerns of security and integrity of American elections. However, more questions than answers exist on what blockchain means for the U.S. election system, so it should not be seen as the solution at this point.
Burt Barrere is a manager for cybersecurity and Dan Goga is an associate for cybersecurity, both with Grant Thornton Public Sector.