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Insights into Editorial: Many vulnerabilities: On using blockchains in electronic voting

 

electornic_voting

 

Introduction:

Democratic voting is a crucial and serious event in any country. The most common way in which a country votes is through a paper based system, but is it not time to bring voting into the 21st century of modern technology?

Digital voting is the use of electronic devices, such as voting machines or an internet browser, to cast votes. These are sometimes referred to as e-voting when voting using a machine in a polling station, and i-voting when using a web browser

Context: EC looking at introducing remote voting:

Recently, addressing a webinar organised by Tamil Nadu e-Governance Agency and the EC, Election Commission of India said that despite all efforts, voter participation had remained only around 67% in general elections.

A key factor contributing to this was the inability of the people, who had migrated from their native constituencies for various reasons, to vote.

Unless structural changes in the election processes were made, it would be difficult to increase participation.

To make the EVM more robust:

  1. The much discussed and debated Electronic Voting Machine in India has survived intense scrutiny over its use largely because of one strong reason the fact that this standalone single-chip device is not connected to any network.
  2. This is besides several technological and administrative safeguards to ensure that the machine is not tampered with.
  3. With the addition of the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) to the EVM, “audit-ability” was added to the process even as the machine has suffered glitches, which the Election Commission of India (ECI) has managed to tackle reasonably well.
  4. The ECI should definitely seek solutions to make the EVM more robust even as it must reject calls for a return to paper balloting which experienced malpractices such as ballot stuffing and booth capturing.
  5. That being said, the announcement by Chief Election Commissioner that the ECI is commencing trials of a “remote voting project” is sure to bring back scrutiny.
  6. ECI officials have not elaborated or released any detailed document, but have mentioned that the system, being developed by IIT-Madras, uses the blockchain method for “two-way remote voting” at designated centres.

Solution: ‘Vote from anywhere’:

  1. Director, IIT Madras, stressed on the need for the new remote voting system to not deviate much from the present electoral process followed.
  2. The system must have mechanisms to gain confidence of not only the voters, but booth agents of parties and independent candidates as voters would be allowed to vote from anywhere.
  3. Stating that a remote voting system would be a major step forward in enabling franchise for migrant population, he pointed out how students of his institution often expressed dissatisfaction over their inability to vote as they were away from home.
  4. While remote voting could help such people, including those outside the country, to vote from wherever they were, such a system must satisfy the highest standards of security and trustworthiness.
  5. Highlighting how technology had been adopted in the election process, he pointed out how electoral rolls were in physical ledgers at the sub-district level just a decade ago.
  6. Today, we have electoral rolls of 90 crore voters in a single portal and online services are provided for registration.
  7. Arguing that evolving a technology might not be difficult, what was important was to ensure transparency and trustworthiness.
  8. It is to improve trustworthiness in the electronic voting machines (EVMs) that we had to bring VVPAT (Voter-verified Paper Audit Trail). The IITs and other premier institutions working on remote voting.

Remote voting with the help of Block Chain Technology:

  1. Remote voting, as an option, has gained some priority during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to address social distancing.
  2. In the U.S., the mail-in ballot system, where registered voters received ballots and returned it via post or dropped it off at secure “drop boxes” or voting centers, was widely used, but this was entirely paper based.
  3. The blockchain method implements an online public bulletin board that allows for a linear ordering of data to which a user can only further append data.
  4. The board itself is public and available for anyone to read and verify. The technology has been put in use for cryptocurrencies the Bitcoin blockchain records a list of transactions that can be read to find out who owns which bitcoins without any centralised authority.
  5. In the case of a blockchain-based voting system, the voting authority will have to authenticate this bulletin board in which users sign in using cryptographic signatures to register their votes in a ledger.
  6. While this system, with its cryptographic features, promises data security and verifiability, the fact that it will depend upon a network and devices could introduce vulnerabilities that are present in any Internet-based system.

Current Digital Voting Systems:

A number of digital voting systems are currently in use in countries around the world.

Estonia has had electronic voting since 2005 and in 2007 was the first country in the world to allow online voting. In the 2015 parliamentary election 30.5% of all votes were made though the nation’s i-voting system.

Conclusion:

Many in the blockchain technology and remote voting world believe voting technology advancements can and will provide a new method of voting that is more secure, easier, and will allow for more people to perform their basic civic duty.

A draft paper by MIT and Harvard researchers, in November 2020, has raised concerns about the designs of a remote block-chain-based voting system and pointed to serious vulnerabilities in some instances where it was tried out.

The paper also points out that beyond the vulnerabilities faced by any Internet-based system, blockchains also introduce issues related to complexity and their management.

The ECI would do well to exercise caution before deploying this method in elections, besides subjecting it to a rigorous public appraisal.