Political polarization, foreign influence, and bureaucratic pitfalls have induced stress and distrust within America’s political process. Could blockchain be the answer to Democracy’s demands in the Digital Age?
The State of Our Nation
Before COVID-19 forced us to physically distance from one another, a 2017 study by the American Psychological Association (APA) reported that “The Future of Our Nation” and the “Current Political Climate” were the number one and number four most prominent stressors for Americans, respectively. A follow up report in July 2020 highlights that on both fronts, stress has increased for many regardless of political affiliation.
When faced with stress, many attempt to “control their controllables” by focusing on specific actions they can take to make sense of the constant noise around them.
One such action is becoming involved in the political process. If you don’t like what you see going on in your country, your state, your city, or your village, voting someone into office who you believe will work to turn it around may provide a sense of empowerment. After all, you’re fulfilling your civic duty and making American Democracy more vibrant and functional in the process.
But what happens when we can’t trust our own Democracy?
Common Concerns & Partisan Divide
Back in January, 41% of American adults indicated that they think the U.S. is either “not very prepared” or “not prepared at all” to keep this November’s election safe and secure. Respondents to this poll provided their answers:
- before a surge in absentee ballot requests for the November election (Michigan is seeing a record ~3.5x increase in requests compared to 2016)
- before absentee ballot vote-counting issues arose from bureaucratic shortcomings in places like Milwaukee and New York City (20% of voters in New York’s 12th Congressional District who submitted absentee ballots may ultimately have their votes thrown out)
- before the United States Postal Service (USPS) faced financial dire straits and operational changes (former Republican National Committee deputy finance chairman and current USPS Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, has since stated that the mail service would only pursue dramatic operational changes after the November election)
People increasingly feel that casting a vote will be difficult in November, and recent events have not helped to put people at ease. Given the health concerns associated with physically traveling to polling centers, interacting with and standing in line among crowds of people, Americans’ desire to vote-by-mail seems justified.
However, political partisanship has taken hold of the “vote-by-mail” issue; 17% of Trump supporters and 58% of Biden supporters prefer to mail in their ballots, respectively. This partisan ideological divide is also reflected by how difficult Republicans and Democrats expect it will be to vote in November.
Americans are experiencing stress over concerns for the future of our country. Increasing demand for mail-in ballots has already resulted in operational snags and disenfranchised voters. People are concerned with simply being able to cast a vote.
So why has the USPS deactivated mail sorting machines and allegedly removed mailboxes? (Emails from USPS headquarters show that disconnected sorting machines will not be reconnected.) These changes are sure to cause more stress and uncertainty as we approach November 3rd.
51% of Americans surveyed in January stated that they believe President Trump has encouraged election interference. President Trump, in addressing his decision to withhold money from the USPS, stated on Fox Business:
“They need that money in order to make the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots.”
Given the need to conduct presidential elections effectively, efficiently, and securely, intentionally handicapping the USPS seems like a targeted effort to prevent “millions and millions of ballots” from being counted. The breakdown of voting method preference along party lines suggests that these mail-in ballots would skew in favor of Democrats, thereby disenfranchising those who may be voting against President Trump. (Vote-by-mail hasn’t been shown to favor one party over the other in states that have already implemented it.)
Foreign Influence and Cybersecurity
In 2016, the Russian government engaged in a concerted effort to influence the outcome of America’s election. This included an organized operation to spread propaganda on social media in order to provoke distrust and sow discord among Americans.
Whether or not these actions changed votes is unclear and unlikely, but most would agree that it worked in promoting polarization. While polarization had already been accelerating for years prior, (visualized below by the growing divide between Congressional Democrats’ and Republicans’ decreasing legislative bipartisanship) the current political climate seems as polarized as ever. Social media, legacy news networks, and an emphasis on outrage and attention grabbing headlines have all played vital roles.
American Democracy and public sentiment alike are vulnerable to pitfalls in our current electoral system. Security holes can be exploited far too easily on physical voting machines.
Governments are also simply not as prepared for the Digital Age as they should be when it comes threats like ransomware and phishing scams.
Perception is Reality
Even the most optimistic interpretation of everything mentioned above would still warrant a concerned American populace. Any functioning Democracy requires that citizens trust that their votes are fairly counted (and that they have the opportunity to cast their vote in the first place).
Bureaucracy has failed to catch up to the surge in demand for mail-in ballots. Elected and appointed leaders have kneecapped bureaucratic systems. Foreign actors want to destabilize American society and erode trust. The security of our current voting infrastructure is not reassuring.
72% of Americans believe that this is the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember. A disputed election that foments even more partisan fighting would drive this number higher, and we would be worse off because of it.
Any system prone to operational deficiencies and turbulent leadership needs to be reassessed and optimized. How can we revitalize our voting process to ensure that we trust both the system itself and the results it produces?
The Trust Protocol
Blockchain technology is the protocol behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. This technology works by cryptographically compiling “blocks” on an ever-growing list of timestamped transactions.
This list, or “public ledger,” cannot be compromised; the decentralized network of computers and servers must first validate any changes for a transaction to be hashed in a block. No centralized authority (e.g., President of the United States or Postmaster General) could subvert this system, so long as the system is truly decentralized.
Users of the network can see for themselves any changes made to the ledger, so they can rest assured that their actions on the blockchain (i.e., their vote) has been recorded. The need for human or machine ballot counters and sorters would disintegrate as transactions on the blockchain occur in real time. This could also drive down the cost to operate elections via physical polling locations, hiring poll workers, and purchasing voting machines.
Injecting trust into American Democracy can, and will, go a long way toward reducing stress, increasing faith in our elections, and breaking down partisan barriers between both representatives and citizens alike.
That Sounds Great… Can We Actually Do It?
The short answer: yes.
Blockchain voting platforms like followmyvote and Tezos already exist, though use of their services are not yet widespread. The USPS filed a patent for a blockchain-based voting system, giving credence to the notion that such a system is possible (and that organizations want to be the one to provide it).
In order to create a blockchain-based voting system, voters would first need to verify their identity. Estonia, the Baltic country of roughly 1.3 million people, has been developing an e-resident program with the aim to digitize society. This program is a promising step forward in adapting to the Digital Age, and America could emulate this program in cities, towns, and villages through “beta tests” before rolling it out for 350 million citizens.
Estonians “can use their ID cards to vote online and all government records are accessible online. Moreover, Estonian citizens control their data. They can choose to restrict access to various information in their personal profiles.” Americans love convenience, and providing a digital one-stop-shop for everyday actions could be not only useful, but a show of good faith from the government to the people. Elected officials could display that they are actively trying improve everyone’s standard of living.
An American national voter ID system that emulates Estonia’s would also squash public discussion around voters needing to present a driver’s license (or other form of identification) at polling locations before casting a ballot. People throughout the country could have the peace of mind that each and every vote on a blockchain voting platform has been cast by a previously verified American citizen.
Additionally, those who are already signed up for their electronic voter ID could easily change voter information such as their home address and party registration. This would further work to quell concerns around voter fraud and even eliminate the need for state governments like Ohio to remove voters from their voter rolls.
The Path Forward
It’s essential for the public to have faith in the outcome of our Democratic and free elections. Without this trust, American Democracy will cease to exist and people will become more polarized. Political discussions at the dinner table will be impossible to endure. Without lively and respectful political debates, it is difficult to envision positive change from happening at the scale needed to combat the major issues of our time. These issues include the economic fallout from COVID-19, adapting to life after the pandemic, and addressing the rapidly changing business landscape.
Trailblazing municipalities should be the first to test blockchain voting systems. Holding side-by-side elections (in-person & on the blockchain) could serve as a “proof of concept” for this innovative technology before completely transitioning online. This would show people how the new system functions, instilling trust and understanding that all votes have been securely recorded.
In 2016, only 55.7% of the voting age population in the United States actually cast a ballot. Low-income Americans voted roughly 20 percentage points lower than higher income voters, as around 34 million low-income eligible voters stayed home. The main reason for not voting: “lack of interest in the issues or feeling their vote will not matter.”
Democracy is failing when almost half of all eligible voters don’t even bother to vote. Voters in precincts with larger minority populations disproportionately experience longer wait times and fewer voting machines, exacerbating the issues of voter disillusionment and disenfranchisement.
The way to get representatives into office who will actually represent the best interests of constituents is for those constituents to vote.
Voting needs to be as easy, accessible, and secure as possible. Blockchain voting will allow eligible voters to make their voices heard from the comfort of their own homes, breaking down the physical barriers to participating in Democracy. This will hopefully drive up voter turnout and force politicians to be more responsive in the process.
We could use the trust and ease-of-voting that blockchain provides during the current vote-by-mail debacle and concerns about in-person voting during COVID-19. Moving forward, prioritizing investment in and accelerating the adoption of blockchain voting technology would go a long way toward restoring some faith in American Democracy.