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Vitalik Buterin Thinks On-Chain Voting Can Save Democracy as More Governments Adopt Blockchain Solutions

Last Updated June 27, 2024 12:13 PM
James Morales
Last Updated June 27, 2024 12:13 PM

Key Takeaways

  • Vitalik Buterin recently discussed blockchain’s role in protecting democracy.
  • He argued that solutions like Freedom Tool can be important weapons in the fight against authoritarianism.
  • While on-chain voting might be some way off, governments are embracing more and more blockchain use cases.

On-chain voting is commonly associated with Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) governance. But in an increasingly digital world, there are those who believe blockchains can be deployed in the context of real-world democracies too.

Among them is Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, who recently appeared on an episode  of the Bankless podcast to discuss how blockchains can help promote democracy in countries like China and Russia.

Buterin Backs Zero-Knowledge Encrypted Voting Platform

In conversation with Noah Smith, Buterin argued that over-centralization is to blame for many of Russia’s political challenges. To that end, he touted Rarimo’s “Freedom Tool” as a potential antidote to Putin’s authoritarianism.

Using zero-knowledge proofs, Freedom Tool lets Russians anonymously register for an online voting system using their passport. Or as Buterin described it: “an anonymous voting system that lets us have shadow votes among the shadow Russian nation.”

While the system leverages zero-knowledge proofs to verify people’s identity without sacrificing their anonymity, it envisages public blockchains handling votes as smart contract calls.

As Buterin’s comments highlight, Freedom Tool is currently more of an experiment in alternative democracy than it is a real-world voting solution. But could some form of DAO-style government ever become a reality? 

Not so long ago, migrating real-world civic functions on-chain seemed like a crypto pipe dream. But in 2024, a growing amount of governmental activity is integrating blockchains. 

Governments Embrace Blockchain

In 2012, Estonia became the first country in the world to deploy blockchain technology as a record-keeping solution when it uploaded the national registry of wills to the KSI blockchain. 

Since then, Estonia’s healthcare registry, property registry, business registry, and digital court system have all been recorded on-chain, making it easier for citizens to access and ensure the integrity of data stored in government repositories.

While Estonia was something of a pioneer in digital government, other countries are now catching up.

Public Sector Blockchain Use Cases Gain Ground

In 2021, a network of hospitals in the UK  started using Hedera Hashgraph to keep track of whether COVID-19 vaccines were being stored at the correct temperature. Meanwhile, the National Health Service (NYS) is working to integrate  blockchain platforms to enable the secure sharing of digital patient records.

Even law enforcement is getting in on the action. The Dubai Police recently launched a pilot initiative to share bullet scans on Cardano, leveraging the immutability of blockchains to ensure the integrity of criminal evidence.

Of all the civic use cases for blockchains, voting is one of the most contentious. Within the crypto community, the trustlessness and transparency of public blockchains are taken for granted. But for most people, paper ballots and live counts remain the more trustworthy solution.

The Future of Online Voting

To prevent the system from being hacked or manipulated, secure digital identities are a necessary precondition for any on-chain voting system for government elections. And although the European Union has adopted  the legal framework for a bloc-wide e-ID system, it could be years before the new platform is up and running. Elsewhere, there is often little political appetite for new national identity schemes of any kind.

However, the default aversion to identity-tracking systems in places like the UK, where the government’s attempt to introduce compulsory ID cards in 2006 ultimately failed, could also be ameliorated by blockchains.

The UK’s ill-fated ID card scheme was severely criticized by civil libertarians who objected to the creation of a new centralized identity register. But the combination of zero-knowledge proofs and blockchains envisaged by Freedom Tool creates the possibility of using authenticated digital credentials to vote without the need for centralized databases. 

As potential models for future digital democracies, it is worth considering how DAOs have incorporated a variety of proof-of-personhood protocols to prevent Sybil attacks. Solutions including Civic , Proof-of-Humanity  and Zorro  have all been leveraged by DAOs to control access and voting rights. 

Such technologies are still in their infancy. But as on-chain voting gains traction among online communities, perhaps it is only a matter of time before governmental elections adopt the concept too.

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