Biting the Bitcoin; Reflections on the Latest “Bitvote” Buzz

In those continuing efforts to route around the abysmal state of voting in America, we’re starting to hear an increasing drumbeat about Bitcoin as a basis for reinventing elections.  We’ve been watching this discussion or evangelism unfold in the past few weeks.  We even fielded questions from politicos in the Beltway last week about it (seriously).

As technocrats at heart around here, how can we not have our tails in a slow wag over the potential of Bitcoin technology (specifically the Block Chain)?  Well, a slow wag maybe; getting our tails in a twist over it for voting?  Not so much.  And here’s why.

I’m going to use one particular article that dropped this week as a vehicle for discussion.  Not because we’re picking on this author or his publication by any stretch (besides, publishing technicality, it was only a “contributed piece”).  But rather, this article provides a typical, and as good as any, evangelistic essay on the topic.

To start with, the author makes a fundamental assumption that is wholly inappropriate for U.S. elections administration. Then, several other observations on his part unfortunately reveal a complete lack of understanding of U.S. election law and practices (not that we think he should be an expert in such things, but he probably should have some basic understanding before assuming how Bitcoin might or might not innovate the process of elections).  Author Odell leads with:

The primary problem with the antiquated methods come down to a single fundamental issue, centralization.

Well, actually, that centralization is necessary and it isn’t central, but local — the machinery of U.S. elections are required to be in the control of U.S. local election officials.  It’s a feature not a bug.  His next assertion:

Current voting methods require a large amount of human involvement, from poll workers, to vote counters, to the companies and engineers that design the voting machines.

Yes, yes they do.   And the effort is worth it, for the proper operation of critical democracy infrastructure. You see, the integrity of the process depends on local control of ballots, transparency of the local operations, and a critical dual approach to counting ballots that prevents both sole reliance on people and sole reliance on technology.  Both people and software have fundamental limits in trustworthiness, so it is important to use both, in order to solely trust neither.  Odell continues:

Then you have the oversight groups who employ individuals to oversee the election workers.

Actually, that’s a feature, not a bug.  Election workers’ work should be transparent, but the accountability benefits of transparency only accrue if members of the public and good-government groups are actually watching.  Then the author continues with some assertions that I’ll take list-wise in response.

Current voting methods are …

  • inefficient and expensive
    Well, expensive is a fixable feature of a dysfunctional market for election technology; inefficient is a value judgement not shared by local elections officials, who seek the most efficient way of performing their duties, given the rules, regulations, and resources they have.
  • susceptible to fraud and manipulation
    Yes, by definition, and they always will be, hence the VAST mandate (elections must be delivered that are Verifiable, Accurate, Secure, and Transparent), and hence the model for ballot-count integrity I referred to above.
  • need to be vastly improved
    We agree on this point to the extent there is always room for innovation, but it has to fit with local elections officials’ legally mandated responsibilities.

Odell continues…

Bitcoin technology can provide us with a new and improved voting system built from the ground up, a decentralized and secure alternative.

Decentralized” in this context would mean non-localized.  But that would mean local elections officials relying on a trust management system that they cannot and do not control.  That doesn’t fit current election law and regulations in the vast majority of the jurisdictions in this country.  “Secure” in this context means “local elections officials should trust this decentralized system because its proponents say it is trustworthy.”  At the risk of thinking too practically: that’s just not likely to happen anytime soon.

Odell adds…

Bitcoin is a decentralized and robust ledger secured by computers around the world that run the Bitcoin software.

Indeed it is.  We’re not disputing that characterization, but no local election official in this country is going to swallow a story of, “This crypto is so good it will never break and you can trust it so much that you can outsource to a nebulous global network all the responsibility you have for demonstrating the accuracy of election results.”  Not going to happen, not any time soon.  I’ll pass on even attempting to address “robust” in the author’s assertion about the ledger, as it would apply to voting in America.

Then consider that there is an entire generation of post-Snowden voters coming up who are crypto-luddites, and who believe that any system’s fundamental reliance on crypto is an invitation for central governments’ national security establishments to sneak in.  The most recent example is the Tor Network, which supposedly protects the anonymity of people using the web.  In fact, about 80% of its infrastructure has been compromised, and if someone is unlucky enough to use that 80% while being targeted by national security apparatus, their anonymity will be breached.  Unfortunately perhaps, there’s no reason to suppose that the foreseeable future of Bitcoin is any brighter, and not just because Mark Cuban says so.

I’ll toss in one final thought about the near-term practicality of Bitcoin being the pathway to secure and fraud-free elections.  Bitcoin usage requires at least a basic appreciation of the concept of public-key encryption (“PKI”); specifically the use of public and private keys (as straight forward as some may believe it to be).  We learned long ago from our prior ventures that the public was nowhere near ready (and still not today) for widespread use of technology like digital signatures or public key cryptography.  While Bitcoin transactions are simple enough and do not require a computer scientist to mine bitcoins or make purchases, in order to use Bitcoin technology as a basis for casting and counting ballots, one would need considerably more Bitcoin knowledge.

I’ll leave this critique by observing that at least for the article I chose, the title did state, “How Bitcoin Could Make Voter Fraud and Stolen Elections Impossible.”  The operative word there is “Could.”  And if we simply want to consider the potential of a technology (verses its practicality) then the potential of Bitcoin to provide for a more secure means of voting is acknowledged.  However, I remain convinced it is impractical for American elections as they are conducted and regulated today, and skeptical about the term “Impossible” for anything related to voting security.

How Bitcoin Fits Into Our Innovation Envelope
Now, let me shift from a critique of the current Bitcoin evangelists to a comparison with our charge.  We have had some people complain that as a non-profit election technology R&D organization, we should be spending more time looking over the horizon at everything from the block chain to smartphone Internet-based voting.  We are spending all of our time looking at innovations, with one major important difference: we are an “applied research” organization and not a “basic research” organization.

What that means is we are funded to have an emphasis on discovering, determining, and developing innovations that are likely to find their way into adoption, adaptation and deployment in the foreseeable future, in order to begin shifting elections administration and voting into the 21st century, while respecting laws and regulations as they stand, and process and politics as they exist.

So, where does this leave us with regard to Odell’s (and others’) vision of the Bitcoin blockchain serving as the basis for reinventing how (at least) America votes?  Let’s put it this way:

  • We are focused on election technology innovations that meet the current requirements of U.S. election officials (not necessarily those abroad).
  • That includes voting system technology that requires the typical use of standard encryption for data integrity.
  • Current requirements for voting systems don’t require any further use of crypto, including block chains.
  • We are also working on innovations in election technology that exceed the requirements of U.S. election officials, and improve their ability to deliver on the “VAST” mandate (that elections are Verifiable, Accurate, Secure, and Transparent).
  • In the arena of voting systems, “E2E” (End-To-End) is the crypto-based innovation that is most likely to fit within existing election administration practice (always a requirement) and deliver improvements that election officials can support, and that the public (citizen-voters) can benefit from.
  • E2E ballot verification is technically well known.  In the TrustTheVote Project, we rely on the applied crypto experts that are part of our technical stakeholder community, who are well versed in the application of E2E techniques to voting systems.

The bottom line here is that we didn’t say that there is no room for Bitcoin blockchain technology in future innovations, only that it doesn’t even remotely fit into something that local elections officials can use in the foreseeable future.

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