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A cure for democracy?

  • Published at 07:04 pm July 31st, 2018
The future of voting?
The future of voting? Photo: BIGSTOCK

An online voting system based on blockchain technology could be the answer

“Why is it that we can store thousands of songs in this tiny black box,” my professor asked my Introduction to Comparative Politics class, holding his iPhone in his hand, “but must stand in long lines on weekdays to vote?” 

With boiling blood, the young black man next to me said: “Because they want to disenfranchise us.” I could feel the frustration and anger in his voice when he continued: “They don’t want our votes to count.” 

This anger and frustration with the voting process is not uncommon. People around the world now feel that the political processes have become too corrupt for their votes to matter, and they must take matters into their own hands through extraordinary means, eg social movements, voting for populists, and even violence.

This is bad news for democracy. 

In the United States, gerrymandering and campaign finance advantages have become part of the political process, and trust in the American voting system has come to an all-time low. While many Americans fear that their votes would be tampered with by a foreign government, voters in fragile democracies like Bangladesh are afraid of rigging and voter fraud. 

The recent city corporation elections in Bangladesh, where both the ruling party and the opposition indulged in undemocratic behaviour to varying extents, has done much to enhance this fear.

Insofar as the problems with the current voting system is the logistical difficulties and fears of rigging and tampering, an online voting system based on blockchain technology could go a long way in allaying our woes. 

Blockchain, largely sensationalized by its use behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, is a distributed ledger that operates on multiple computer nodes. Every time a change is made to the chain, the entire ledger is updated. Because the information is not being stored in a centralized location, it’s virtually impossible to hack. Mobile phone technology, like fingerprint and face recognition, helps ensure that the person casting the vote is who they say they are. 

This technology is already being used provisionally for voting in limited settings. Last year, Nasdaq trialed blockchain-based e-voting in Estonia, in the context of shareholder votes. Nasdaq also ruled the Estonia experiment safe enough to allow firms to start using blockchain for proxy voting.  

In May, West Virginia became the first American state to use blockchain in a federal election, when a number of absentee military voters used a blockchain-based mobile application. Military voters first verified their identity via government-issued IDs and face recognition. They cast their votes via Android or iPhones, and then those votes were stored on a blockchain. 

Even in a fragile democratic country like Sierra Leone, blockchain voting was used by an election observer in one election district. 

To be fair, I am no tech expert and thus cannot predict how translatable these initial positive results are in a real-world election for a large number of voters. But I mention these cases to set the stage for some theoretical musings about the future of our democracies, something that I am no more qualified to do but will venture to do nonetheless. 

For the sake of that theorization, let’s assume that mobile phones are being used to vote in a blockchain-powered election process that is immune from rigging, hacking, or tampering. Would that work to reduce the voters’ anxiety about disenfranchisement? 

It would certainly go a long way in limiting the amount to which coercion can be used to affect the vote. If voters can really vote from their own conveniences, without the hassle of standing in long lines or even going to the voting centre, voter turnout would also see a massive increase. More voters would vote not only in hot-button national elections but also in local and state level elections. 

The electorate may also become more engaged in political topics if they see a chance to affect policy through ballot initiatives that can be carried out through online voting. If it all works out like I imagine, the political process would become a lot more responsive to the electorate and the distance between the political class and the voting population would decrease.

But of course, I am an optimist. There are others who believe more widespread voting would harm our republics instead of improving them. Critics of democracy would likely point to the election of Trump, Orban, Duterte, Modi, and the Brexit referendum to show how letting people vote on things don’t always bring out optimum results. 

But all of the events were also coupled with a sense of disenfranchisement and frustration with the political process. This frustration would be less possible in a system under which people vote freely and frequently. 

If voting really becomes easily accessible and tamper-proof, a future which blockchain enthusiasts promise, the democratic project may see a rejuvenation and a more direct role of the people in their state affairs may be established. 

This may just be the cure we need to restore the trust of the people in the political institutions of their countries.

Anupam Debashis Roy is the Editor of Muktiforum.