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From Paper to EVMs to Blockchain Voting: The Pros and Cons of E-Voting

Jan 29, 2022 12:10 PM 6 min read

Even as the regulatory status of cryptocurrencies hangs in limbo across countries, the blockchain technology that digital currencies are based on seems to be here to stay.

What’s more, for many proponents, this tech seems poised to revolutionise elections and voting, and with it democracy itself.

Divorcing Bitcoin from Blockchain

Firstly, it's easy to interpret blockchain's staggering rise as a by-product of the age of cryptos, NFTs and metaverses. However, this technology has actually become a force to reckon on its own.

Across the world, blockchains are already being employed in numerous non-crypto applications, including healthcare, gaming, supply chains, trading, banking, waste management, land registration…and governance

You don’t typically expect government institutions to take the lead on new-age technologies. But a growing list of local governments in India, USA, UK, Switzerland, Japan, and Russia (among other countries) are turning to blockchain to augment their services.

In Australia, it is being touted to streamline welfare payments. Estonia already uses this tech to secure everything from health records to court files. Tamil Nadu wants to build a state-wide blockchain backbone to integrate operations across government verticals. Dubai wants to become the first "blockchain-powered government".

In fact, one of the most impactful areas for blockchain usage might be something fundamental to governance - and democracy itself: Elections.

But before we delve into the possible future of voting, let’s brush up on the basics…


Blockchain 101

What exactly is a "blockchain"? Basically, it's a list of records on your computer as well as on every system on the shared network. This "distributed ledger" follows a decentralised aka "horizontal" structure, meaning that it is open to anyone on the shared network.

Every transaction on this network is secured with a unique digital signature, ergo it is authentic and one-of-a-kind. And because this data is encrypted and backed by unique digital signatures, it is (supposed to be) tamper-proof.

(Of course, there's more to blockchain than this. Here's a more exhaustive explainer if you're interested.)


How Does Blockchain-Based Voting Work?

In a nutshell: The voting authority maintains a voter registry and assigns each eligible voter a "key". On election day, the voter "sends" the key to the digital address of the candidate of their choice. After voting is done, the candidate with the most number of keys wins.

Significantly, each key is backed by a government-issued ID and/or facial recognition, and is thus unique and (reportedly) immutable. And since blockchain is an open system, anyone on the network can verify the final tally. 


Preparing for a Futuristic Future

Interest in blockchain-powered electronic voting systems is taking off. Russia and Japan have launched pilot projects. Sierra Leone (sort of) employed blockchain in its 2018 general election. In 2020, a Utah county in the US utilised blockchain-based e-voting for the first time. The trend-setter, though, is probably Estonia, where internet voting has been a norm since as early as 2005.

Coming to India, 2021 was a banner year. In April, the Election Commission of India (ECI) began working with IIT-Madras to develop an e-voting system. Six months later, Telangana's Khammam district (with 113,000 eligible voters) became the first to exercise a dry-run of smartphone-based e-voting based on blockchain, AI and facial recognition tech. The ECI has also hinted that the 2024 Lok Sabha election may see more instances of e-voting.

But why is this new-age voting system generating traction? Besides the fact that remote voting is more convenient and less expensive, the argument is that it addresses the vulnerabilities in traditional voting systems.


What Vulnerabilities?

The most commonly used voting method in the world today remains paper ballots (where voters mark their preferences on a ballot, drop it at a prescribed voting centre, and the ballots are later counted to tabulate results). The other common method is machine voting, primarily via electronic voting machines (EVMs). There's also postal voting, open ballots (i.e., via the show of hands), and even voting with the use of marbles (in some regions where illiteracy is rampant)!

Now, paper ballot voting is a tedious, lengthy, expensive and environmentally taxing process. Moreover, manually counting votes means there is always scope for human error, no matter how little. Machine voting addresses many of these concerns, but it’s not fool-proof either.

There's also the issue of public trust, which has somewhat eroded in democracies over the past few years. Partly due to extreme ideological polarisation and partly due to lack of faith in extant voting processes. In the US, for instance, paper ballots are still widely used, and in the 2020 Presidential election widespread (and debunked) reports of vote-rigging led to large-scale protests in favour of former President Donald Trump, culminating in the January 6th Capitol riots.


A Brief History of the Great Indian Festival

In India, the voting process today is dominated by EVMs. From Independence to the 1990s, Indian elections were ballot-based and rife with reports of booth capturing and ballot stuffing. These problems were particularly acute in states like UP, Bihar and West Bengal, where voting was routinely accompanied by extensive violence. Moreover, general drawbacks of ballots, like counting errors and logistical issues, were compounded in a country as massive as India.

Things began to change thanks to action by the courts and the ECI. Beginning in 1982, EVMs were slowly trialled in by-elections. In 1999, they were used for the first time in a state election (Goa). And by the 2004 general election, EVMs became an integral part of Indian elections.

Since 2011, EVMs have been accompanied by the voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) system to add further accuracy and manual verification by voters. The process has also been accompanied by exhaustive public trial runs of voting machines before election day to spot and replace possibly faulty machines.

EVMs are generally considered more accurate and cost-effective than manual alternatives. They are also more suitable for a huge nation like India. However, that hasn't stopped allegations of EVMs being rigged, hacked, or transported sans security.


Blockchain Voting: Pros

Whether factual or not, the very belief that elections can be rigged can undermine the very basis of democracy. It can also breed voter apathy and fuel further polarisation and discontent. Blockchain proponents contend that ledger-based e-voting fixes all these problems.

By its very nature, blockchain-based voting is supposedly horizontal, verifiable, immutable, anonymous and incorruptible. As such, it eliminates any scope for fake votes, tampering or rigging. It’s also an inexpensive and convenient process, which can be executed by citizens from their homes.

The overarching argument is that, at a time when everything from shopping and banking to education and the nature of work itself are moving to remote and online models, elections need not be stuck in an esoteric past. 


Blockchain Voting: Cons

However, that doesn’t mean blockchain is inarguably the panacea to voting issues. For such a system to work, voters need (1) smartphones/computers, (2) up-to-date software to ensure minimal security loopholes and (3) secure, fast and reliable internet connectivity. All of which remain tall orders in a country like India.

Online voting systems are also quite susceptible to hacking attempts (an infamous example is Voatz, a blockchain-based mobile voting app used in a US state in 2018 for overseas military voters that was found to harbour serious security vulnerabilities). Arguments that e-voting could increase voter turnout are also yet to be vindicated: trial runs in Belgium and Estonia showed negligible increases or increases overwhelmingly favouring high-income neighbourhoods. Speaking of whom, Estonia’s much-touted e-voting experiments are yet to be replicated in the rest of Europe, where experts continue to maintain that the system is not hacker-proof and that “the benefits aren’t worth the risks”.

One of the biggest concerns is the regulatory gray area that blockchain-based systems operate in. Especially in India, where there are rumours about an all-out crypto ban. Moreover, privacy itself continues to be governed by a hotch-potch of arcane statutes even as the much-delayed Personal Data Protection Bill continues to be delayed.

All said and done, blockchain-based e-voting is still in its nascent stages. Like the technology it is based on, it offers much promise. One may expect more localised trial runs in the near-term. However, a state-wide or national election held primarily on the back of a digital ledger seems impractical, hasty and dangerously reckless as of today. Especially in a country like India. 


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