Want Tamper-Proof Elections? Start With Blockchain For Voter Registration

Opinions vary greatly about what’s wrong with our current voter registration systems, but nobody is happy with them.
01/03/2017 09:13 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2017

Regardless of what you think about foreign interference in the 2016 elections, voting security—actually, fears of serious insecurity—are top of mind today. Worries exist with every aspect of the election process from districting and voter suppression to irregularities in vote tallies. Tackling all the weak points in our elections is a tall order, but there is one place we can start: Voter registration — and specifically voter rolls which are the ultimate “source of truth” for who can and cannot vote.

There is clearly a need for a way to maintain secure, verifiable, tamper-proof voter registration records while still enabling each state to continue managing its own election process. For many, the answer is a return to paper. There is a good case for using scannable paper ballots on voting day. But for voter rolls, paper documents are cumbersome and extremely bad for detecting fraud or errors. How do you know if all of the original paper records are still there? How do you know if extra records have been added? Or if some were tampered with? Paper provides no automatic alarm or auditable log of activities. A better answer is blockchain.

Wait, before you run off ... Stay with me for a moment. Leave aside voting itself for now. Let’s just focus on voter registration. Opinions vary greatly about what’s wrong with our current voter registration systems, but nobody is happy with them. Most people agree on the basics of what is needed: A voter list that is easy to maintain and update, whose records and every change are logged, protected and yet verifiable at any time, and is unhackable. In short, digital record-keeping that is trusted, transparent, and tamper-proof.

This is the very definition of what blockchain technology enables.

In very simple terms, blockchain is a distributed database — meaning it’s basically a giant spreadsheet that runs on millions and millions of computers and uses state-of-the-art cryptography. Its underlying code is open source, so anyone can see what’s going on with it. That’s what makes it secure. Any attempted tampering with the underlying software would be visible and discoverable by the world.

Each voter registration record is protected by cryptography that both keeps the voter information anonymous and the entire list secure. When the next voter record is added, it is attached to the previous record, creating a ”chain” of records. This is the blockschain ledger. It is automatically copied every 10 minutes onto thousands of personal computers around the world, creating a massive database. As the database grows, it actually become more secure. Why? Because every record (or “block”) created makes it much harder to rewrite history because anyone can verify that the history is correct by reviewing all the prior blocks created all the way back to the first. Tampering with voter records would require altering every block back to the beginning — on every copy of the blockchain ledger. Basically, it’s impossible.

What can it document? Pretty much any kind of transaction. Like buying a house. Registering marriages or births. Currency trading. You name it. And yes, recording voter registrations.

Each state could create and maintain its own voter registration roll using blockchain technology. There are two things that the Federal Election Commission could do to get things going. First, begin piloting use of blockchain in “synthetic” elections using dummy voter registration data that otherwise looks exactly like actual voter rolls. Second, serve as the convener of of dialogues, held in a completely transparent manner, to establish standards and an election-grade, blockchain reference framework for states to use. Out of this can emerge the governance structures that will be needed — just as happened with the Internet.

For those who say blockchain is too far-fetched or untested for use in voter registration, consider this: Right now, 80% of banks around the world are working on blockchain projects, according to the World Economic Forum. CLS, the entity that handles $18 trillion (yes, trillion!) in settlement transactions for the foreign exchange market, will launch a blockchain-based platform in 2017 to document trades for some of the world’s biggest banks like JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Citibank. Walmart is starting a major test of blockchain technology to manage its massive supply chain.

If blockchain is a viable option for them, it is certainly a technology that the FEC and state election authorities should consider testing for voter registration.