Experts this week warned against entertaining the idea that blockchain could fix the voting system despite growing frustration with the long lines and malfunctioning machines that caused problems during the midterm election.
“If you're trying to convince Walmart it needs blockchains to track avocados or whatever, be our guest,” Arvind Narayanan, an associate professor of computer science at Princeton, tweeted. “But if you're messing with critical infrastructure, you've crossed a line.”
Blockchain is technology that uses computers to build a shared, secure and decentralized digital ledger. Blockchain is best known as the basis for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin but in recent years has attracted interest from a variety of industries that see a benefit in using the ideas behind blockchain.
One of those areas is voting. In May, West Virginia introduced a new way for state residents living abroad to submit their ballots using Voatz, a mobile election platform that utilizes blockchain among other technologies. The state has used the technology in their primary elections, and almost 140 West Virginians voted in the midterms with the Voatz app.
Excitement for the possibility of creating easy and secure voting systems with blockchain technology was also bolstered by The New York Times, which published an opinion piece on Monday by Alex Tapscott, the co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institute. He suggested blockchain technology could be used to solve the issues plaguing the “dated” voting process in the United States, transitioning voting from in-person to digital.
The op-ed was not well received by blockchain and voting experts.
“This is ridiculous.” Angela Walch, an associate professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law and blockchain researcher, tweeted. “Please stop pumping #blockchain tech for critically important use cases like voting in public elections when all actual voting experts disagree. Misleading policy makers and the public on this is irresponsible.”
Ben Adida, executive director of VotingWorks, a nonprofit that is trying to modernize voting, said blockchain technology did not address the challenges of the voting process.
“While the notion of using a blockchain as an immutable ballot box may seem promising, blockchain technology does little to solve the fundamental security issues of elections, and indeed, blockchains introduce additional security vulnerabilities,” Adida tweeted.
Blockchain hype has grown in recent years, particularly as the prices of cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin and ethereum, rose sharply. A wide variety of companies have invested in developing new systems based on blockchain technology, including Facebook and IBM.
But that hype has led to growing skepticism that blockchain can be a cure-all for any system that needs modernization without adequate understanding of what blockchain technology does.
Matt Blaze, an associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted that blockchain advocates would need to answer a lot of questions before the technology would be ready to use in national elections.
“The charlatans pushing for blockchain elections and online voting are doing the equivalent of advocating a health care policy that assumes we’re about to cure cancer,” Blaze tweeted. “Maybe we will, but best not to bet on it.”
While the votes cast in West Virginia did represent a major step for blockchain, the Committee on the Future of Voting, part of the prestigious National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, an independent advisory group, said in a recent report that blockchain technology, while intriguing, cannot be seriously considered yet.