Many have noted with interest some draft legislation in Maine that mandates the exploration of how to use blockchain technology to further election transparency. My comment is, to quote one well known sage, “Don’t Be Hasty”. First, though, let me say that I am very much in favor of any state resolving to study the use of innovative tech elections, even one as widely misunderstood as blockchains. This bill is no exception: study is a great idea.
However, there is already elsewhere a considerable amount of haste in the elections world, with many enthusiasts and over a dozen startups thinking that since blockchains have revolutionized anonymous financial transactions — especially via BitCoin — elections can benefit too. But actually not a lot, at least in terms of voting. As one of my colleagues who is an expert on both elections and advanced cryptography says, “Blockchain voting is just a bad idea – even for people who like online voting.” It will take some time and serious R&D to wrestle to the ground whether and how blockchains can be one of (my count) about half a dozen innovative ingredients that might make online voting worth trying.
However, in the meantime, there are plenty of immediate term good uses of blockchain technology for election transparency, including two of my favorites that could be put into place fairly quickly in Maine, if the study finds it worthwhile.
- In one case, each transaction is a change to the voter rolls: adding or deleting a voter, or updating a voter’s name or location or eligibility. Publication — with provenance — would provide the transparency needed to find the truth or lack thereof of claims of “voter roll purging” that crop up in every election.
- In the other case, each transaction is either that of a voter checking in to vote in person — via a poll book paper or digital — or having their absentee ballot received, counted, or rejected. I hope the transparency value is evident in the public knowing in detail who did and didn’t vote in a given election.
In each case, there is a public interest in knowing the entirety of a set of transactions that have an impact on every election, and in being able to know that claimed log of transaction records is the legitimate log. Without that assurance of “data provenance” there are real risks of disinformation and confusion, to the detriment of confidence in elections, and confusion rather than transparency. Publication of these types transaction data, with the use of blockchains, can provide the provenance that’s needed for both confidence and transparency. Figuring out the details will require study — Don’t Be Hasty — but it would be a big step in election transparency. Go Maine!
Recently I wrote about Congress dismantling the only Federal agency that helps states and their local election officials ensure that the elections that they conduct are verifiable, accurate, and secure — and transparently so, to strengthen public trust in election results. Put that way, it may sound like dismantling the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is both a bad idea, and also poorly timed after a highly contentious election in which election security, accuracy, and integrity were disparaged or doubted vocally and vigorously.
As I explained previously, there might be a sensible case for shutdown with a hearty “mission accomplished” — but only with a narrow view of original mission of the EAC. I also explained that since its creation, EAC’s evolving role has come to include duties that are uniquely imperative at this point in U.S. election history. What I want to explain today is that evolved role, and why it is so important now.
Suppose that you are a county election official in the process of buying a new voting system. How do you know that what you’re buying is a legit system that does everything it should do, and reliably? It’s a bit like a county hospital administrator considering adding new medications to their formulary — how do you know that they are safe and effective? In the case of medications, the FDA runs a regulatory testing program and approves medications as safe and effective for particular purposes.
In the case of voting systems, the EAC (with support from NIST) has an analogous role: defining the requirements for voting systems, accrediting test labs, defining requirements for how labs should test products, reviewing test labs’ work, and certifying those products that pass muster. This function is voluntary for states, who can choose whether and how to build their certification program on the basis of federal certification. The process is not exactly voluntary for vendors, but since they understandably want to have products that can work in every state, they build products to meet the requirements and pass Federal certification. The result is that each locality’s election office has a state-managed approved product list that typically includes only products that are Federally certified.
Thus far the story is pretty geeky. Nobody gets passionate about standards, test labs, and the like. It’s clear that the goals are sound and the intentions are good. But does that mean that eliminating the EAC’s role in certification is bad? Not necessarily, because there is a wide range of opinion on EAC’s effectiveness in running certification process. However, recent changes have shown how the stakes are much higher, and the role of requirements, standards, testing, and certification are more important than ever. The details about those changes will be in the next installment, but here is the gist: we are in the middle of a nationwide replacement of aging voting machines and related election tech, and in an escalating threat environment for global adversaries targeting U.S. elections. More of the same-old-same-old isn’t nearly good enough. But how would election officials gain confidence in new election tech that’s not only safe and effective, but robust against whole new categories of threat?
I’ve got to debunk a really troubling rumor. It’s about Internet voting, or more specifically, about those who oppose it. Longtime readers will recall that Internet voting is not one of the favorite topics here, not because it isn’t interesting, but because there are so many more nearer-term low-effort ways to use tech to improve U.S. elections. However, I’ve heard this troubling story enough times that I have to debunk it today, and return to more important topics next time.
Here’s the gist of it: there is a posse of respectable computer scientists, election tech geeks, and allies who are:
- Un-alterably opposed to Internet voting, for ever, and
- Lying about i-voting’s feasibility in order to prevent its use as a panacea for increased participation and general wonderfulness, because they have a hidden agenda to preserve today’s low-participation elections.
I have to say, simply: no. I’ve been in this pond for long enough to know just about every techie, scientist, academic, or other researcher who understands both U.S. elections and modern technology. We all have varying degrees of misgivings about current i-voting methods, but I am confident that every one of these people stands with me on these 4 points.
- We oppose the increased use of i-voting as currently practiced.
- We very much favor use of the Internet for election activities of many kinds, potentially nearly everything except returning ballots; many of us have been working on such improvements for years.
- We strongly believe and support the power of invention and R&D to overcome the tech gaps in current i-voting, despite believing that some of the remaining issues are really* hard problems.
- We strongly believe that i-voting will eventually be broadly used, simply because of demand.
We all share a concern that if there is no R&D on these hard problems, then eventually today’s highly vulnerable forms of i-voting will be used widely, to the detriment of our democracy, and to the advantage of our nation-state adversaries who are already conducting cyber-operations against U.S. elections.
I believe that we need a two pronged approach: to support to the R&D that’s needed, but in the mean time to enable much needed modernization of our existing clunky decaying elections infrastructure, to lay the rails for future new Internet voting methods to be adopted.
Returning to the kooky story … but what about all those Luddite nay-sayers who say i-voting is impossible and that the time for i-voting is “never”? There are none, at least among tech professionals and/or election experts. There is some harsh rhetoric that’s often quoted, but it is against the current i-voting methods, which are indeed a serious problem.
But for the future, the main difference among us is about the little asterisk that I inserted in point 3 above — it means any number of “really” before “hard.” I’m grateful to colleague Joe Kiniry of Galois and of Free&Fair, for noting that our differences are really “just the number of ‘really’ we put before the word ‘hard’.”
PS: A footnote about i-voting Luddites and election tech Luddites more broadly. There are indeed some vocal folks who are against the use of technology in elections, for example, those that advocate for a return to hand-counted paper ballots, with no computers used for ballot casting or counting. They do indeed say “never” when it comes to using the Internet for voting, and indeed e-voting as well. But that’s because of personal beliefs and policy decisions, not because of a professionally informed judgment that hard problems in computer science can never be solved. In fact, these anti-tech people are the other end of the spectrum from the folks who so strongly favor i-voting at any cost that they caricature nay-sayers of any kind; both folks use out of context quotes about current i-voting drawbacks as way to shift a conversation to the proposition of “Internet voting, no way, not ever” from the more important but nuanced questions of: Internet voting, not whether, but how?