There's a sense bubbling up in the cryptocorners of the internet that the trick to bitcoin might be that it doesn't have to be a currency at all. Maybe cryptocurrency’s fundamental value is as a security protocol—a safe, anonymous, hack-proof network that decentralizes trust and democratizes power. And maybe a hitherto overlooked use of all that is politics, by using the bitcoin precedent to overhaul democratic voting.
Political groups and tech startups are beginning to experiment with digital voting systems based on the bitcoin and blockchain protocol.
What does voting have to do with bitcoin? For all its appeal, online voting in its current form— which is already being used or researched in several US states and countries overseas—is very vulnerable to fraud, cyberattack, and government corruption. The theory is that the bitcoin security protocol matched with anonymizing software and a totally open source voting infrastructure would solve for a lot of these problems.
"Just replace a coin in your head with a vote, and run it the exact same dynamic," said Maximiliaan van Kuyk, cofounder of the V initiative, based in New York. The V initiative and V mobile voting app is one of the leading bitcoin-based e-voting efforts here in the US, working with the National Association of Voter Officials toward the ambitious goal of moving America's political election process into the digital age, something NAVO’s been pushing for for a decade.
Imagine that instead of a bitcoin, there's a set of “coins” with a unique marker inside the current bitcoin blockchain that indicates a specific vote. This can be achieved today with the "colored coins" technology. Let's call these "Votecoins."
Each registered voter gets a Votecoin through the election organizer—say, the US government. The government also sets up what's effectively "yes" and "no,” or maybe it’s "candidate A" and "candidate B” wallets. When it comes time to vote, you send your Votecoin to the wallet of your choice, just like a bitcoin transaction.
Also like a bitcoin transaction, the entire process is recorded in the blockchain public ledger, repurposed to verify votes and avoid voter fraud. So instead of placing your trust in a central authority like, say, the ballot counters tallying up hanging chads in Florida, the network is anonymous but transparent, and audited by the crowd.
V isn’t the only system applying the blockchain protocol for secure online voting; it's joined by BitCongress, Liquid Feedback, Agora Voting, and others. Crypto voting is has been used in elections in Norway, Denmark, Europe’s Pirate Party, and the Spanish Congress.
"It would not surprise me if within a couple years we saw them come into existence in the United States."
In the US, bitcoin-based e-voting protocols are still just a proof of concept; there’s a legal hurdle to clear before transitioning the current election system to the web. "I can't say for sure because there are a lot of variables, but it would not surprise me if within a couple years we saw them come into existence in the United States," said secretary of NAVO Brent Turner.
NAVO started out specific to California, which recently passed legislation that would pave the way for open source digital election systems. Now the group is taking the effort national.
"The idea is to provide options for the national state election directors and the election officials by giving them good information and basically a roadmap on how to create their own open source voting systems," said Turner. “There is a crisis right now that is being recognized nationally.”
But before we revamp the framework for American democracy, there are some questions to answer. What if the infrastructure’s hacked? What about voter coercion, "people being metaphorically held at gunpoint to vote a certain way," said van Kuyk. What about privacy?
E-voting and cryptography are hot topics, and plenty of startups and organizations are on the case. For instance, onename.io, which uses the blockchain to publicly verify identity, and TurboVote, a nonprofit working to make online voter registration and voting more user-friendly.
On the privacy point, the V platform would need to be 100 percent anonymous, notably unlike bitcoin. As a last line of defense, the protocol would run on an IP-masking software like Tor to protect users against mass data scraping that can reveal identities by putting together enough clues, as we learned from the NSA leaks.
There can also be a psychological resistance to transferring a high-stakes analog system into cyberspace (my mom refused to do any banking online until last year), so V is testing its closed voting app in smaller democratic decision-making processes before diving into politics. It’s planning, with NAVO, test trials in civic and social settings like student governments, unions, councils, and businesses.
But others are diving headfirst into e-voting. Estonia, England, and Finland are considering digital voting for national elections, with centralized systems, and in Alaska you can vote for the president online without anonymity. "This kind of stuff is moving forward in a lot of places and nobody's really talking about it," said van Kuyk.
Beyond security, the technoutopian vision of bitcoin-based voting is to move closer to a direct or “liquid” democracy rather than a strictly representative one—to allow for more engagement in the political process.
On the extreme end of this ideology are proposals to ditch representative democracy altogether, and use the internet to crowdsource it instead. I wrote about a startup that wants to replace Congress with software by electing candidates into office that then tally popular vote via algorithm and vote accordingly.
Van Kuyk envisions a more moderate change. The V protocol would enable elected politicians to key into their constituencies more easily and get feedback on issues, “allowing more interaction between the citizens and the people that represent them,” he said. The V initiative even touts the technology as a way to help relieve the gridlock and systematic problems crippling Washington and give voters back a voice.
"The political corruption and stalemates and a lot of the power mongering that goes on," said van Kuyk, "that kind of system can't continue. It inevitably has to be disrupted … We could have a system in place so that we can always chime in and make our opinions known—so it can work the way it's supposed to work.”
At its core, bitcoin’s fundamental ethos was always to democratize power. Maybe that’ll end up playing out through politics instead of money.