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Role of Blockchain technology vis-à-vis Electoral Democracy

Electoral democracy and integrity are indispensable facets of any democratic nation and for a voter's trust and liability. Democracy is a governance system in which sovereign power is entrusted with the people. The people periodically exercise this power directly or indirectly through a practice of representation by free and fair elections which is termed Electoral Democracy.

Setting that aside, it is no news that the world is constantly reminded that India is the largest democracy. Our democracy appears to be the highest accolade India has any claim to. Paradoxically, this same badge is used as a shield for deflecting all criticism directed against India for much of its failures[1].

This is due to inadequate representation of educated public in the elections as already stated. The reason for the powerlessness of educated urban people is to some extent due to them being a minority. They are disenfranchised and to a large extent this disenfranchisement is caused by their perception that their vote cannot matter. In essence this is voluntary disenfranchisement of the urban voter which partially accounts for the election of undesirable people to political office and may lead to coalition governments of undesirable political parties.

Elections in India is adversarial and boils down to which candidate can shell out more money. The votes of the illiterate and poor is bought and the votes of the privileged and educated is forsaken. This is where it becomes important for the Election Commission of India to adopt a mechanism that ensures free and fair elections, where the votes of the poor cannot be bought and the votes of the privileged can be protected from being neglected. One such mechanism is the Blockchain technology.

Blockchain and its interaction with Elections:

A Blockchain is a widely disseminated archive of data that maintains a continually expanding register of records fully and reliably protected from any alteration or modification. Each block has a timestamp and link to the preceding block.

In the 21st century we need an election process that is transparent, fair, inexpensive, and convenient. Blockchain technology makes it possible to attain a highly credible and verifiable election process at an inexpensive cost. By using this technology, one need not venture out of one's house to vote. It can be done on the personal device itself[2]. Moreover, people's opinions can be routinely sought on a host of challenging issues. This will lead to grassroot participation by the people in the governance process.

From a government standpoint, electronic voting technologies can boost voter participation and confidence and rekindle interest in the voting system. As an effective means of making democratic decisions, elections have long been a social concern. As the number of votes cast in real life increases, citizens become more aware of the significance of the electoral system[3]. The voting system is the method through which people judge who will represent them in political and corporate governance. Democracy is a system of voters to elect representatives by voting[4].

Therefore, this will usher a new era of electoral democracy, where Blockchain technology will put power back in the hands of people and not their representatives who may be vulnerable to many shortcomings. Blockchain technology can be used for voting. Votes can be cast as transactions. A blockchain can be designed in such a way that it keeps track of the vote tallies. In this manner, everybody can confirm and agree on the final count as the votes can be counted by the voters themselves.

The voters can count the votes and confirm that the votes have been cast, but they cannot know which party the other individual voters have voted for. They will only get the final tally and a confirmation that those many numbers of voters have cast their ballots. Only a voter (and the Election Commission) with access to his or her private key will know, which party an individual voter has voted for.

Because of the Blockchain audit trail, voters can attest that no votes were removed; changed or no illegitimate votes were added. The transparency and discretion involved in the blockchain technology acts as a reassurance and clears the air of speculation around the credibility of this technology. The bigger a blockchain is, the more impossible it is to hack it, thereby leaving less to no scope of such mishaps.

While the blockchain technology looks like a sound solution to this predicament, it does pose a lot of questions such as:
  1. What about the voting rights of the poor and illiterate who don't have access to such technologies?
  2. While it is difficult to hack the entire blockchain, it is quite possible to hack the individual data and modify it. How can this be solved?
  3. Stealing biometric data and infecting the blockchain prior to elections are plausible threats. How can they be overcome?
Such questions are answered in further detail in the second half of this paper.

Analysis:
To begin from the basics, India follows a democratic system of government and a democracy can take several shapes and forms. One such democracies is the representative form of democracy. As the name suggests, representative democracy is an indirect form of democracy wherein a group of people is represented by one single person in the Government.

Electoral democracy is a subset of representative democracy wherein the people elect their representatives to the Parliament through exercising their statutory right to vote. The recent trend in India however unfortunately indicates a pattern of disinterest among people to enforce this statutory right thereby putting the integrity of electoral democracy at stake. This fiasco nonetheless has a solution-Blockchain.

India's Position:
In the recent past, India has shown some positive response towards exploring Blockchain as possible option for remote voting. The foremost example is that of the Telangana government, which aims at implementing an experimental run towards an e-voting idea. It has raised a point towards building the voter's trust towards such remote voting systems by aiming at holistic user inclusion[5].

In May 2019, the state government published a 'Blockchain Policy Report' (BPR), which discussed the relevancy of blockchain in a wide variety of domains, including tax filings, voting, land registry setups, utilisation of healthcare facilities, creation of tamper-proof voting records, registration of vehicle and licences, fraud-proof welfare scheme disbursements, and digital identities for individuals such as refugees, who lack government-issued identity documents[6].

BPR also advocated the use of biometric facial recognition technologies (FRT) for voter identity authentication, as well as connecting the voter's phone number and International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) to voter ID for verification in rural voting systems[7].

In 2020, the Election Commission conducted several discussions and demonstrations with various state government, policy think tanks, and private industry stakeholders to explore the idea of a nationwide remote blockchain election system[8]. In February 2020, it had collaborated with the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M) to develop a new technology that will allow electors to vote from far away cities without going to the designated polling station of their respective constituencies via a blockchain system[9].

ECI's collaboration with IIT-M:

One Nation One Elections is difficult to achieve it as it requires amendments of existing laws and political consensus, said the Chief Election Commissioner-Sunil Arora in a conversation with The Hindu. He further opined that the Election Commission of India is working with IIT-Madras on using Blockchain Technology for remote voting and considerable development in that direction is expected by 2024 General Elections.

Interacting with Indian Police Service (IPS) probationers at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy, he also said though "One Nation One Elections" is desirable, it is difficult to achieve it as it requires amendments of existing laws and political consensus.

"We are doing a project with IIT-Madras, Chennai, and some of the eminent scientists. We are doing a Blockchain project. We are very hopeful by 2024 Lok Sabha elections you will see a lot of fundamental differences the way we (Election Commission) are working, including this (e-voting)," Sunil Arora replied when asked if the EC is working to introduce app-based e-voting for the convenience of citizens to vote remotely[10]. About this collaboration, the CEC said that "There has been a good progress in this regard and mock trials would begin soon.[11]"

However, this does not mean that citizens will be able to cast votes from the convenience of their homes, but only that they will be able to vote from other spots and not the only designated booth.

Explaining the 'blockchain' technology involved in the project, former Senior Deputy Election Commissioner Sandeep Saxena had earlier said the concept is a "two-way electronic voting system in a controlled environment on white-listed IP devices on dedicated Internet lines enabled with biometric devices and a web camera"[12]. It does not mean voting from home. After a voter's identity is established by the system, a blockchain-enabled personalised e-ballot paper will be generated.

"When the vote is cast, the ballot will be securely encrypted and a blockchain hashtag generated. This hashtag notification will be sent to various stakeholders, in this case the candidates and political parties," the official said. Suppose there is a Lok Sabha election and a Chennai voter is in Delhi. Instead of returning to vote in his or her constituency or missing out on voting, the voter can reach a pre-designated spot set up by the EC, say in Connaught Place, in a particular time window and can cast his vote" said former Senior Deputy Election Commissioner Sandeep Saxena. A condition precedent to avail this facility would be to register in such distant polling booths in advance, prior to the date of elections in order to ensure proper and effective implementation of this new model.

The Blockchain Model:

In the Blockchain voting system, the voter will download and install the Blockchain Voting Program (BVP) on the mobile phone or a personal device of their choice.

A few days before the actual election, the voter will present the suitable identity information to have their identity confirmed by the Election Commission or the organization in-charge of hosting the election.

Once their identity is verified, the voter would be able to request their ballot, at which point they are issued a ballot in the form of a token by the Election Commission.

The voter will then cast the ballot (token) and securely submit their vote(s) to the Blockchain-based voting program. This is like transacting a token, but with the vote cast on the Blockchain. To obtain evidence of voting, the voter will be able to print out a receipt.

When the voting process closes on Election Day, voters may monitor their vote to ensure that their vote was cast as they had wished-for and tallied as cast. Each voter can also audit each vote in the ballot box[13].

One can satisfy oneself of the total being counted by the Blockchain Voting Program as accurate or not. All this is done without divulging the identity of any voter.

Come to think of it, the advantages of BVP transcend government elections. A representative or member of a nation's parliament can directly be in touch with one's voters. The said member can put certain issued of one's constituency for the opinion poll.

Interested voters can provide their opinion by voting using the BVP. The member will then come to know the mood of the public in one's constituency. Based on the poll, one can raise a particular issue in the National Assembly. These facilities in the new model has a higher probability of securing data privacy and achieving transparency at the same time.

Data Privacy Concerns:

Many issues with electronic voting can be solved using blockchain technology, which makes electronic voting more cost-effective, pleasant, and safe than any other network. Over time, research has highlighted specific problems, such as the need for further work on blockchain-based electronic voting and that blockchain-based electronic voting schemes have significant technical challenges[14].

For a small number of users, blockchain works well. However, when the network is utilized for large-scale elections, the number of users increases, resulting in a higher cost and time consumption for consuming the transaction. Scalability problems are exacerbated by the growing number of nodes in the blockchain network. In the election situation, the system's scalability is already a significant issue[15]. An electronic voting integration will further impact the system's scalability based on blockchain[16].

It must be noted that different metrics or properties inherent to all blockchain frameworks, present a comparative analysis of some blockchain-based platforms such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, Hyperledger Fabric, Litecoin, Ripple, Dogecoin, Peercoin, etc. One way to enhance blockchain scaling would be to parallelize them, which is called sharding. In a conventional blockchain network, transactions and blocks are verified by all the participating nodes. In order to enable high concurrency in data, the data should be horizontally partitioned into parts, each known as a shard.

As a username, blockchain utilizes pseudonyms. This strategy does not provide complete privacy and secrecy. Because the transactions are public, the user's identity may be discovered by examining and analysing them. The blockchain's functionality is not well suited to national elections[17] consisting of an alphanumeric code. In blockchain technology, transactional anonymity and privacy are difficult to accomplish[18]. However, transactional secrecy and anonymity are required in an election system due to the presence of the transactions involved. For this purpose, a third-party authority required but not centralized, this third-party authority should check and balance on privacy.

Lastly, blockchain-based voting means that before the count is released, no one can find out the details. It avoids acts such as manipulating late voters' decisions by issuing a prediction or offering a significant yet unfair benefit to certain persons or groups as to be the first to know[19]. Nonetheless, upon a thorough evaluation, one can't help but notice the downsides of implementing a blockchain-based voting system in a country like India.

Downsides to Blockchain:

While the level of privacy and transparency seem to be remarkable, there are a few negatives to this framework which easily convinces us to take a step back and look at the actual effectiveness of this revolutionary idea. A primary point to note is that the adequacy and efficacy of blockchain technology are often not evaluated on the basis of sound theoretical and practical claims, but rather on the intuition of trust, transparency, accountability, decentralisation, and the guarantee of political equality in a democratic setup.

The blockchain used in the elections would be very different from the one in current use due to the involvement of ECI. If implemented, blockchain become a semi-centralised institution. This would mean the data privacy assured earlier would become vulnerable and may also make the blockchain weak and hackable.

Network attacks could also reveal where a given user was voting and potentially suppress votes in the process. In such a case, if the blockchain displays all the votes to be in public domain, a simple hack into the system puts thousands of people's data at risk. As a whole, the fundamental issues that arise through blockchain election are as follows: i) cybersecurity vulnerabilities, ii) malware attacks by third parties. Further, the application of this system can involve iii) vulnerable collective choice mechanisms, iv) dubious technical safeguards, and v) geographical hurdles[20].

Having said this, it can be stated that blockchain technology in elections is a double-edged sword and one needs to ponder upon whether there are additional complications that arise out of the same[21].

Blockchain voting around the world:

The first use of blockchain voting technology happened in Denmark when the Danish Liberal Alliance used a blockchain voting system to conduct an internal vote in April 2014 during its annual meeting[22]. Furthermore, Blockchain Technologies Corporation used the VoteWatcher system on at least two separate occasions to count votes at the Libertarian Party Conventions in the United States.

The first time was in April 2016 at the Party Convention in San Antonio, Texas.[23] The second time happened at the Libertarian Convention in New York City in May 2016. Additionally, Rand Paul, the Libertarian presidential candidate in the 2016 elections has spoken favourably about[24]blockchain and bitcoin in the past. In February of 2016, Ukraine and the United States signed a memorandum to develop an Ethereum-based voting system, platform[25]). Russia also announced in April 2016 that it had developed and successfully tested a blockchain-based proxy voting system[26].

The benefits of blockchain voting are so plentiful that blockchain voting will inevitably become more and more common throughout the world. To accelerate that process, political parties in different countries must continue to push for wider adoption of the technology and make it clear that this is not in the interest of any one party but of the democratic government as a whole.

Additionally, general wider adoption of blockchain technology in various industries will make the technology more well-known and increase the chances of such system being used throughout the world. Finally and most importantly, governments must be willing to improve the democratic process in their respective countries and put the people's will first as a democracy is only as strong as the ability of its people's voice to be heard[27].

Conclusion:
Elections these days involve a large amount of money, manpower, resources and time. In the process, the administration and day-to-day lives of people are affected. Moreover, elections can be manipulated and voters can be coerced to vote against their will. Many a times, the credibility of the election process itself is questionable. In such a scenario, we need an election process that is transparent, fair, inexpensive and convenient.

Blockchain technology makes it possible to attain a highly credible and verifiable election process at an inexpensive cost. The amount of money saved by using BVP will be immense. There will be minimal wastage of time, money, manpower and space. Democracy will not only be feasible, but will be affordable too. Elections, a costly festival of Democracy, will become a routine activity of the future if mobile voting through BVP is introduced.

Election activity will be so inexpensive, that governments may automatically opt for Democracy through mobile voting. Africa and other developing Nations, experiencing a chaotic hotbed of strife due to poverty, will be able to stand on their feet, as affordable Democracy can be ushered in[28].

End-Notes:
  1. Dey A, Transforming India: Big Ideas for a Developed Nation (Oxygen Books 2011
  2. Hegadekatti K, "Democracy 3.0: Voting Through the Blockchain" (SSRN December 23, 2016) last accessed on Nov 19, 2021
  3. Lin Y and Zhang P, "Blockchain-Based Complete Self-Tallying e-Voting Protocol" [2019] 2019 Asia-Pacific Signal and Information Processing Association Annual Summit and Conference (APSIPA ASC) last accessed on Nov 20, 2021
  4. Jafar U, Aziz MJ and Shukur Z, "Blockchain for Electronic Voting System-Review and Open Research Challenges" (2021) 21 Sensors 5874, last accessed on 19 Nov 2021
  5. NewIndianXpress, "Telangana Government Explores Ways to Integrate Blockchain with Voting Process" (The New Indian ExpressMarch 24, 2021) <https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/telangana/2021/mar/24/telangana-government-explores-ways-to-integrate-blockchain-with-voting-process-2280639.html>, last accessed on 19 Nov 2021
  6. Telangana Blockchain Policy Draft May 2019"<https://it.telangana.gov.in/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Telangana-Blockchain-Policy-Draft-May-2019.pdf> last accessed on 19 Nov 2021
  7. Reporter S, "TS Government Releases Draft Blockchain Policy" (The HinduMay 25, 2019) <https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/ts-government-releases-draft-blockchain-policy/article27249595.ece> accessed November 19, 2021
  8. India to Develop Blockchain Voting System (Global Government Forum) <https://www.globalgovernmentforum.com/india-to-develop-blockchain-voting-system/> accessed November 13, 2021
  9. Pti, "E-Voting to Become Reality Soon? EC Working with IIT-M on Blockchain Technology" (mintMarch 26, 2021) <https://www.livemint.com/elections/assembly-elections/evoting-to-become-reality-soon-ec-working-with-iit-m-on-blockchain-technology-11616755074358.html> accessed November 20, 2021
  10. Pti, "Election Commission Working with IIT-Madras on e-Voting" (The Hindu March 26, 2021) <https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/election-commission-working-with-iit-madras-on-e-voting/article34170161.ece> accessed November 20, 2021
  11. Cec Says Mock Trials for Blockchain-Aided 'Remote Voting' to Begin Soon (The Wire) <https://thewire.in/government/election-commission-national-voters-day-remote-voting> accessed November 20, 2021
  12. Ibid
  13. Supra 2
  14. Supra 4
  15. Song J-G, Moon S-J and Jang J-W, "A Scalable Implementation of Anonymous Voting over Ethereum Blockchain" (2021) 21 Sensors 3958
  16. Ghani AT and Shanudin M, "Method for Designing Scalable Microservice-Based Application Systematically: A Case Study" (2018) 9 International Journal of Advanced Computer Science and Applications.
  17. Javed IT and others, "Health-ID: A Blockchain-Based Decentralized Identity Management for Remote Healthcare" (2021) 9 Healthcare 712
  18. Bernal Bernabe J and others, "Privacy-Preserving Solutions for Blockchain: Review and Challenges" (2019) 7 IEEE Access 164908.
  19. Mara da AP, Pawlak M and Guziur J, "Auditable Blockchain Voting System - the Blockchain Technology toward the Electronic Voting Process" (2020) 16 International Journal of Web and Grid Services 1
  20. Ibid
  21. Supra 9
  22. Admin, "Democratic and Efficient: Is Blockchain Voting Our Future?" (Coinfox) <http://www.coinfox.info/ news/reviews/5497-democratic-and-efficient-is-blockchain-voting-the-future> accessed November 22, 2021
  23. Ibid
  24. CoinDesk, "Coindesk: Bitcoin, Ethereum, Crypto News and Price Data" (CoinDesk Latest Headlines RSS) <https://www.coindesk.com/7-politicians-in-support-of-bitcoin-and-blockchain-tech/> accessed November 22, 2021
  25. Platonova, E, "Ukraine to Introduce Ethereum-Based e-Voting" (Coinfox) <http://www.coinfox.info/news/4794- ukraine-to-introduce-etherium-based-e-voting> accessed November 22, 2021
  26. Rudina M, "Russia's National Settlement Depository Succeeds in Blockchain Test" (Coinfox) <http://www.coinfox.info/news/5414-natsionalnyj-raschetnyj-depozitarij-uspeshno-protestiroval-blokchejn-2.> accessed November 23, 2021
  27. Osgood R, "The Future of Democracy: Blockchain Voting" <https://www.cs.tufts.edu/comp/116/archive/fall2016/rosgood.pdf> last accessed on 20 Nov 2021
  28. Supra 2

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