Enter Blockchain Technologies Corp, a company that hopes to replace existing proprietary machines with secure, open-source voting machines that use the blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin.
A blockchain is a distributed ledger. Instead of one company being in charge of a central database, everyone who sets up a node on the network has a copy of it. Imagine a bank with a database of deposits and withdrawals. As a customer, you have to trust that the bank is tracking your funds correctly. Now imagine instead that a large network of customers is tracking all withdrawals and deposits, constantly verifying against each other's records in order to maintain the integrity of the ledger. This is how the digital currency Bitcoin works.
Now, imagine that instead of withdrawals and deposits, it's votes.
Advocates say blockchain-based elections are transparent and secure. They've been tested by the Liberal Alliance in Denmark and the European Pirate Party. And now, Blockchain Technologies Corp. is developing an actual voting machine that will record votes using a blockchain.
"We're going to embarrass Diebold"
Here's how it works. Voters register as they normally do. Come election day, they fill out a ballot that looks roughly like a traditional election ballot. This ballot, however, features three small QR codes sit at the bottom: one representing a blockchain address, which is like a unique cryptographic number; one representing the ballot ID; and one for the election ID.
As the votes are scanned into the machine, each "vote unit" is transferred to the appropriate candidate. Each candidate has a unique address, also called a wallet, which is how the machine knows where to send the votes.
You can look up the candidate's address to see how many votes each candidate has, using a tool called a blockchain explorer that pulls up the information about each section of the ledger.
The Blockchain Technologies Corp. team showed me a prototype; it looks like a fax machine connected to a screen. The machine stays disconnected from the internet to keep malicious actors from manipulating the votes as they are coming in, and burns the ballots to a DVD before it's connected to the internet. It will also be encased in a chassis and "impervious to electromagnetic funny business," one developer told me.
The specifics of how to configure the blockchain will be up to whoever is putting on the election. It's possible to use the same blockchain Bitcoin uses. Blockchain Technologies Corp. has developed a new blockchain called VoteUnit that works much the same way, but without requiring transaction fees for each transfer the way Bitcoin does.
However, there's only so much that blockchain technology can do. "Blockchain technology can provide untamperable audit trails, but it doesn't solve the hard problem that erroneous or malicious software in the voting machine may cast votes other than how the voter intended, and the voter will never be able to know," explains Jeremy Epstein, senior computer scientist at SRI International who actively warned about the security of Virginia's machines.
Young admitted as much. "There is no such thing as an unhackable system," he said. But his team does implement several safeguards.
"The open source code combined with the paper, DVD, and blockchain audit trails may not completely eliminate fraud in the voting process, but it will be a step in the right direction. Especially compared to the 10-15 year old, buggy electronic voting machines we use today," Young said.
There is more than one problem with current voting machines—Steve Borelli, software developer at the company, pointed to those manufactured by the banking and security company Diebold. One is that they use proprietary software that outsiders can't inspect. Blockchain Technologies Corp plans to open source its voting machine software. "Anyone who knows Python can look at every nook and cranny of the code," Borelli explained. "Diebold can't do that."
The machines will also use widely-available commodity hardware, so that broken parts can be replaced easily. The hardware for some voting machines is notoriously difficult to replace when the machines have been discontinued.
One especially important voting machine design decision, according to the developers, is to include a paper trail. Hacking may go undetected if there isn't a paper trail for voters to look at and verify that the votes counted in the voting machine database are correct, and haven't been manipulated, as was one significant problem with voting machines that were finally pulled from Virginia's elections over the summer. Say if the blockchain data doesn't match up to the data on the DVD, whether because of error or outside manipulation, the paper ballots can be used for a recount.
Furthermore, if you enter a vote into an electronic touch screen first, and then it spits out a result, then it's vulnerable to manipulation before it reaches physical paper form, Borelli explained.
The team expects to complete the machine before the 2016 election, although they're not sure whether states will pick up the machine. Until then, they are in talks with unions. They recently merged with GAHC, a company with a subsidiary Global Election Services, which holds more than 4,000 labor union elections a year. Young expects it to be a "great test bed."
Considering the depressingly icky state of voting machines in the US today, the team at Blockchain Technologies Corp. believes that the machine is an improved machine for states that are strapped for cash, even if it's still an imperfect alternative.
"We are going to embarrass Diebold," Borelli said.