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The recent US elections on November 3, 2020 underlined several shortcomings in the American system. A record number of mail-in ballots were cast in the country due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, their counting was delayed and this created considerable political uncertainty in the country. Some of it is still going on as the sitting President Donald Trump keeps refusing to concede. While it is expected that eventually his legal appeals in courts will fail and they will uphold the current standings and declare Joe Biden the winner, the system’s cracks show that there is a lot of room for improvement. The same holds true for countries around the world as fake news, increasing political advertising and polarizing of the public make it difficult to hold the elusive free and fair elections. The public is also skeptical of the process and questions are being asked about how to improve it.
What is the Solution?
The obvious answer to this problem would be to speed things up through improving the system’s technical ability. For years, several tech innovators have come forward with a system that eliminates the need of going to the polls entirely. You just download an app and vote directly from there. The voting time is automatically cut off on election day and the results are declared one state at a time. Easy, right?
Well, not quite. Completely electronic voting is not a very trustworthy way of voting. Various human studies have shown that the vote count process with physical ballots that are sorted out by officials while the candidates’/political parties’ poll watchers look on is still considered the pick of the bunch. It is especially true in case of a very close contest as the recent US elections show. When the democratic process is close, it will tempt both of the candidates to declare victory and cause a problem in peaceful transfer of power. What will happen now in several states like Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona is that a manual recount will be made in front of poll watchers so that any doubt can be rectified in front of actual people’s eyes. This is not possible if the entire system is completely digitized centrally. The main problem being transparency. If the technology can provide transparency like the paper-based system, we can have a more trustworthy system.
Technology can Help in Some Way, Right?
The US system allows each state a certain degree of autonomy to determine electoral procedures. West Virginia, a small US state trialed blockchain-based elections back in 2018 midterm elections and now in the recent November 3, 2020 election as well. Some counties in Utah, Colorado and Oregon also unveiled their pilot projects to enable this decentralized approach to voting. However, these projects were limited to enabling the electoral process for the overseas military personnel and other millions of Americans who don’t reside in their country. The projects showed great promise for the future as the electoral process was apparently wrapped up quicker with no contested ballots or accessibility issues.
Apart from the US, the rest of the world is also warming up to the possibility of giving users more freedom in the electoral process while increasing transparency at the same time. The European Parliament (EP) has also come forward and listed the advantages of blockchain technology in the voting process. According to an online EP document titled “What if blockchain technology revolutionised voting?”, the technology is very effective in ensuring free and fair elections in which everybody can participate. Rather than relying on a central database of any electoral commission to help register votes, voters can register themselves and cast their votes directly, all the while tracking their votes and holding a digital copy of their ballot paper with themselves. This is a revolutionary achievement of the technology as once the ballot paper is cast, the connection is lost from the voter’s side and they can only rely on current online trackers that have proved to be cumbersome and unreliable. The report outlines challenges that need to be to be overcome before such a system can be in place, but overall, it notes that the idea bodes well with the concept of free-and-fair elections, which is a backbone of democracy.
Blockchain-based voting offers the best of both worlds. It gives voters the freedom to register themselves, keep a copy of their vote, track it and tally it at the end through a transparent approach. It is fast, secure, accountable and fair for everyone. However, scaling is everything. If a country can effectively design and deploy such a system to all the voters, it will not only strengthen the democratic norms but also make people trust the system once again.