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Can Distributed Ledger Technologies Restore Trust in Politics?

Written by Helen Disney, CEO of Unblocked

Trust in the institutions that make up civil society – be it politics, business, the media, NGOs or even academic expertise – is in rapid decline. In the USA, Edelman’s most recent Trust Barometer showed a record-breaking drop in trust among the general public, much of it driven by a lack of faith in government. Trust in government fell 14 points to 33% among the general population and by 30 points to 33% among the ‘informed public’. One tongue-in-cheek survey from 2013 found that Congress was less popular than head lice, root canal treatment and colonoscopies. Clearly something needs to change in the citizen’s relationship with the state – so could technology help?

Could new decentralised ledger technologies restore trust and make the manipulation of elections, which has taken place in 52 countries over the past 5 years, a thing of the past? Much has been made of the potential of blockchain as an unchangeable source of shared truth – a so-called ‘trust layer of the internet’ – but how realistic is it to imagine that one day we may be able to eliminate the ghost of the ‘hanging chads’ and see our elections conducted in this way?

There are a number of areas where blockchain or distributed ledger technologies could potentially be useful in improving the electoral systems we have today including improving security, verifying identity and preventing fraud and also extending the vote to those who currently find it too difficult to physically visit a polling station or even get to a post box to send a postal vote. You may be surprised to know that there are 1.8bn people registered to vote today who don’t actually exercise their democratic rights. What if you could vote by simply using an app on your phone? Surely many more people would be encouraged to get involved in elections if voting was as simple as many of the other consumer transactions we already engage in online today?

Tech Radar has identified voting as one of the “10 sectors that blockchain will disrupt forever”. And, in fact, a number of real world pilots of blockchain-based voting have already been carried out. As early as 2016, in Colombia, the non-profit foundation Democracy Earth launched a blockchain voting platform called Digital Plebiscite to allow Colombians abroad to cast votes regarding a Peace plebiscite conducted through the platform.

In March this year, in what was initially reported as a global breakthrough it was claimed that Sierra Leone had employed blockchain technology in its Presidential elections. Later Sierra Leone’s National Electoral Commission (NEC) denied the claims and the CEO of blockchain foundation Agora, Leonardo Gammar, clarified that a pilot was instead run alongside the normal electoral process as a demonstration of how the election could be conducted using blockchain technology in future. Gammar claims the Sierra Leone NEC is nevertheless still keen to have Agora back for blockchain voting pilots in forthcoming by-elections. In the US, in May this year, West Virginia became the first state to allow Internet voting by blockchain in primary elections. This pilot also employed only a small number of voters but was nevertheless an interesting development.

Kevin C. Desouza and Kiran Kabtta Somvanshi who wrote about the pilot in an article for the US think tank the Brookings Institution argue that “The idea of using blockchain for elections is worth more than just an experiment, however. Mobile voting using a safe and tested interface could eliminate voter fraud and boost turnout. It will make it more convenient for citizens to vote while abroad, irrespective of the distance and time. It is also a beneficial tool for the election commission to maintain transparency in the electoral process, minimise the cost of conducting elections, streamline the process of counting votes and ensure that all votes are counted”.

In addition to state-run pilots, a number of organisations are getting involved in the push for distributed ledger voting. Hedera Hashgraph recently launched its Free & Fair Voting Initiative, which has the stated intention of making voting around the world as easy as picking up your phone. Hedera aims to eliminate voter manipulation and suppression from elections all over the world. It would work by verifying your identity on a mobile device and securely casting a vote on the Hedera distributed ledger. Votes would be anonymous and unable to be tampered with. Identity could be verified on your smartphone either via a fingerprint or retina scan.

And in an interesting thought experiment using the technology to show rather than tell citizens what blockchains could do, an organisation called Decenturion, which is a digital nation state run on direct democracy and based on blockchain, is holding its 2nd Congress for 3000 of its quarter of a million citizens to explore the ideas behind ‘the states of a new generation’. 

Outside of politics, e-voting on a blockchain also has significance for the corporate world too. In January 2017, for example, the Estonian division of Nasdaq successfully completed testing of an e-voting system designed for shareholders of a company. Such systems have the potential to save money, reduce fraud and increase trust and transparency in business as well as in the public sector.

Yet there are a number of hurdles to overcome before voting based on distributed systems becomes mainstream. Some cyber security experts argue that the risks of hacking involved in internet voting are just too great and there is still resistance among government officials in viewing blockchain as anything other than a new, relatively untested and thus risky proposition, with all the political fallout that an electronic voting failure would entail.

Step one would seem to involve proving that distributed ledger technologies can succeed in improving the experience voters have in electing their political leaders today. But step two may be even more significant, ushering in a new era of more direct democracy and political processes in which citizens have a more direct stake in how they are governed. It seems that while the technology is still nascent, the seeds of the distributed democratic revolution are just starting to be planted

Helen Disney is CEO of Unblocked and an advisory council member of the Distributed Ledger Foundation, which recently received a grant from Hedera Hashgraph to incubate the Free and Fair Voting Initiative.

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