USPS’ blockchain patent won’t solve our mail-in voting problems, experts say

Amid the controversy surrounding the U.S. Postal Service, it looks like the agency itself has been investigating some security alternatives. According to Forbes, the USPS filed a patent application in February for “a voting system that can use the security of blockchain and the mail to provide a reliable voting system.”

“A registered voter receives a computer-readable code in the mail and confirms identity and confirms correct ballot information in an election,” the patent reads. “The system separates voter identification and votes to ensure vote anonymity, and stores votes on a distributed ledger in a blockchain.”

A spokesperson for the USPS said that the patent was “pending.” They did not offer further comment about any research that might be underway.

A new validation method

The idea of using blockchain to store and validate identities is not a new one, but the idea of using it in the context of voting presents a complicated problem.

Blockchain is a technology that was developed alongside the internet cryptocurrency Bitcoin as a secure, decentralized ledger to keep track of Bitcoin transactions. The idea was that if there is a constant rotation of multiple different servers all over the world, all keeping track of the information in the ledger, it would be nigh impossible to hack or change the ledger. This idea has caught on in multiple different sectors and industries as a potential new way to securely store data.

Robert Galarza is the CEO of the company TruTrace Technologies, which maintains blockchain-enabled platforms to track intellectual property. He thinks blockchain is “truly the future” of voting, and that utilizing blockchain “could validate identity” and “ensure accuracy in voting results.”

A voter could upload their photo ID or voter registration, then have it automatically validated by whoever holds the master keys to the ledger. “It would be like having one master voting record that would exist forever. No recounts, no hanging chads, no Russian hacking,” Galarza said.

Only one piece of the puzzle

However, securing a person’s identity is only part of the story when it comes to voting. And while the evangelists like Galarza believe the use of blockchain in voting could be inevitable (indeed, a few municipalities in India and Russia have already tried it), other software engineers and cryptographers don’t share the same sunny view. In fact, they worry it could make voting worse.

In 2017, software engineer Ben Adida wrote a blog post breaking down the myriad reasons why using blockchain to vote is inadvisable. Adida is now the executive director of VotingWorks, the only nonprofit election equipment vendor in the U.S.. In the three years since he wrote that post, Adida told Digital Trends that not much has changed, and he still believes blockchain will not solve all the myriad problems in the voting system.

Using blockchain to secure voting, said Adida, would be like driving a tank to the grocery store to go shopping. “You could do that, but why?” Adida told Digital Trends. “It’s hard to argue that the tank won’t get you there, but that’s not the problem I’m trying to solve.”

In other words, driving a tank to the grocery store is a super-cumbersome way to solve one small part of the issues around grocery shopping. Similarly, in the complex question of voting and how best to do it, Adida said, blockchain doesn’t have much to add. And in fact, it might make things more complicated.

First off, there’s the idea that the U.S. is not ready to vote online in the first place, a subject that has been covered extensively. Nonetheless, even with the tech breakdowns in the Iowa Caucuses these year, experts still agree that mail-in voting will be the most secure and healthiest way to conduct a poll this year.

“If you vote online, the main problem is how to maintain voter secrecy,” Adida said. “No one but you should know your vote. This is a requirement that doesn’t exist for anything else online. You expect your bank to know how much money you have. You expect your doctor to see your health records. If you’re voting, how do you re-create a world where no one knows how you voted, especially not anyone who’s running the server?”

This is something that blockchain can’t solve. “The central challenge of voting — building trust in the outcome while maintaining individual voter secrecy — is not solved by blockchain,” Adida said. “So really, the whole discussion is a sideshow. There’s nothing fundamental that blockchain brings.”

“The fundamental problem is resolving the idea of secret ballot,” said Adida. “The only way we know how to resolve this is by giving every voter a paper ballot. They can look at the ballot and say, ‘yes, my vote was recorded XYZ way,’ and they don’t have to tell anyone how they voted. As soon as you put an iPhone or server between you and your ballot, how do you know that you’re looking at your ballot? That’s the problem of voting, and blockchain doesn’t do anything to address that.”

Worsening a digital mess

Popular FinTech consultant Sebastian Meunier published a similar treatise earlier in 2020, around the same time that USPS filed the patent. Meunier did not respond to request for comment, but in his post, he argues that “blockchains were specifically designed to prevent the double spending of digital cash without using central third parties. Public voting is a very different problem, it requires a different solution.”

Matthew Green, a professor of cryptography at Johns Hopkins, laid out in a Twitter thread exactly how blockchain would further complicate matters rather than providing security solutions. Again, he brought up the issue of trying to keep votes secret and coercion-free, and how implementing such a system would lead to a further digital mess.

Why blockchains don’t solve the voting problem. Part 1/833837

Large-scale voting requires a number of complicated properties. People need to be assured that their vote will be accurately recorded and counted. But votes also have to remain secret.

— Matthew Green (@matthew_d_green) August 28, 2018

Meunier pointed to studies done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which found that a voting app that claimed to use blockchain security could easily be breached, and the votes changed.

Not to mention, it seems that previous attempts to secure voting with blockchain have resulted in software that ended up being easily hackable.

Either way, it looks like anything that might be blockchain-related in the U.S. voting system is not imminent. In its statement to Digital Trends, USPS said that “nothing would be happening this year.” And while Galarza called the eventual integration of blockchain “a natural evolution into a better system,” he too thought there was no way it could be implemented by November. Adida agreed.

“If you want to vote by mail, make sure you request a mail ballot as soon as possible, and send it back as soon as possible,” Adida said. “We all want the silver bullet, but voting doesn’t have a silver bullet, just a lot of lead bullets.”

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