Electronic voting is by no means new. In one way or another, non-paper-ballot voting has been going on for decades. It should surprise no one that there have been instances of severe security breaches in more than one jurisdiction. The HBO documentary “Hacking Democracy” covers this in detail.
Cryptocurrency enthusiasts know there is a good solution to the problem of compromised electronic voting. The ledger that underpins Bitcoin, the blockchain, is perhaps the most secure design ever seen. Pete Martin, founder and CEO of Votem, a veteran of SAP consulting, went to a business conference a few years ago in which the speaker challenged his audience to come up with an idea that would positively impact 1 billion people.
“I sold my consulting business and was seriously thinking about getting into state politics,” he stated in interview to CCN.com. “A lot of people around me said, you know, at the end of the day, Pete, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re not a politician. So, you know, if that’s something you want to do, great, we’ll support you, but make sure it’s something you really want to do.”
“So I want to a conference put on my Peter Diamandis. He lead a ‘moonshot workshop’ where he asked the audience to define their “Massively Transformative Purpose.” He basically said “you’re a bunch of smart entrepreneurs, you’re good at making money. but I want you to focus not on business, I want you to focus on impact. So he said I want you to take out a blank piece of paper and write down what you’re going to do before you die that will positively impact a billion people in the world. […] I took out my blank piece of paper and I literally wrote down, “mobile voting.” I knew this would be my legacy.”
Pete Martin is not a blockchain engineer, and it would be unfair to call him a “Bitcoiner” or “cryptocurrency enthusiast.” His focus is on improving voter turnout through making it easier for people to vote. Martin says that, in forming Votem, he reached out to several people he believed might be able to contribute positively to the goal, including Michael Barrett, a former CISO at PayPal.
Martin and his team then set about figuring out a way forward to enable mobile and other types of digital voting, and came up with an open call for submissions of a mobile voting platform with a reward of $230,000. There was no requirement that the solution had to be blockchain-based, but the primary criteria of the specifications document submissions was that it “couldn’t be hacked.”
“We got almost 200 responses from people from almost 30 different countries. About a third of them were just basically not even feasible. Some people said “use quantum computers.” […] A third of them were using e technology that has been used for the online votes today around the world, something called MixNets. And then about a third of them were blockchain-based. […] We ended up awarding some of the money to an engineer from Canada who had the idea to use a non-Bitcoin-specific blockchain for voting. He had a very detailed spec document. As part of the innovation award money, we acquired the IP rights and begin architecting our blockchain-based mobile voting platform.”
Martin says that a standard proof-of-work blockchain would not suit the goal. He also said that words like “Bitcoin” and “cryptocurrency” and a public blockchain are anathema when dealing with organizations like the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), whose approval is crucial to gaining adoption in official elections. Pressed on the subject, Martin says the company will ultimately create a new form of the blockchain framework which is “somewhere between proof-of-work and proof-of-stake which we call “Proof of Vote™ The reason for this is that the votes cannot wait for a “block” to be “mined.” They must be processed when they are cast. He spoke to the reason his company is very different than the blockchain skunkworks that seem to be popping up every week.
“The two main differences are – we understand the elections business and have successfully run statutory statewide elections in the U.S. and understand the incredible complexity associated with a presidential election. In addition, we are focused on securing the latest EAC certification and because in order to sell an end-to-end voting system, in the majority of the states require this. In fact we’ve been through the specifications extensively, and anything that looks like a Bitcoin blockchain would never fly in this world. They won’t let you connect to the open internet for tallying votes. This whole notion of having the general public validate votes would never, ever work in this world. These guys would look at Bitcoin, and look at Ether, and go, ‘Huh?'”
Mobile voting could allow for identity verification on a whole new level, but Martin points out that most US states prohibit invasive identification techniques. It is controversial to even require someone to show photo identification. To conform with existing specifications, any system would hinge on the voter merely affirming their identity or any method allowed by state law. Current and future generations of Americans, however, have a different view on what is and is not a violation of privacy, and one can easily imagine a world where a thumbprint or eye scan is the actual proof that the voter is whom they say they are.
Before the last election, Votem purchased the intellectual property of Konnech Inc., a company which had existing contracts with more than one jurisdiction. Overseas voters from Montana (as in, people who are working in other countries or in the military) were able to cast a ballot using the Internet. Martin considers this arm of the company to be its “educational” aspect, as they ultimately intend for their product to rely on blockchain-technology.
To that end, their blockchain-based platform was utilized in the “fan vote” portion of the 2017 induction of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members. Nearly 2 million votes were cast using the blockchain – the largest such use of blockchain in voting to date. Over 60% of its votes were cast via mobile phones.
We wanted to prove to the world that you could use blockchain technology to conduct online voting in a highly scalable way. […] But what we did with the Rock Hall is never something we would take to the government. It would never meet all the requirements.
But it is a start.
For years, Bitcoin detractors and supporters alike have noted that the blockchain is going to be useful regardless of the success or failure of Bitcoin. Votem has found one way it could integrally change society. The biggest reason millennials did not vote was for lack of convenience, and one of the big controversies in this last presidential election was the claim that “illegal immigrants had cast millions of votes.” These problems can be eliminated through technology, and Votem seems the most promising approach at present.
Featured image from Shutterstock.