Technology can’t make democracy perfect, but it could make it better

‘Historic.’ That’s what some are calling today’s Dutch parliamentary elections. But perhaps ‘prehistoric’ would be even more accurate. Regardless of the results, we’ll use a tool from the past to seal the fate of our future. While our entire society is relying on interconnected digital systems, the way we organize our electoral process seems an anachronistic exception. We have algorithms that drive our cars, we use the internet to transfer billions of euros, yet we still vote by paper and pencil.

But things were not always like this. For more than two decades, computers served a central role in the Dutch voting process. On this day of democracy, let’s have a look at the different stages of computer integration the Dutch electoral system went through.

"<yoastmark

Can voting computers be trusted? (Source: GalacticWanderlust / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Peeking behind the electromagnetic curtain

In 1991, the Dutch government introduced electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the electoral process. Citizens would cast their votes by pressing one of the candidate buttons on the machine, and then confirming their choice as it appeared on the computer’s display.

However, controversy arose in 2006, when research from the AIVD (the General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands) showed that it was possible to spy on the electromagnetic emissions of these machines. Because the frequencies of their radiation correlated with the information displayed on the screen, intercepted frequencies could be used to recover sensitive voting information. As the privacy of voters could no longer be guaranteed, the government decided to remove EVMs from the voting process. From 2009 onwards, we would once again have to cast our votes on paper ballots.

An electronic voting machined, as used before 2009

An electronic voting machined, as used before 2009

Digital nightmares of election fraud

Despite removing all EVMs from the act of voting in 2009, computers still played a role in vote counting. However, last month, RTL Nieuws wrote about extreme vulnerabilities in the vote counting software used by officials. Insecure operating systems, outdated hash algorithms, and the physical transport of unencrypted USB-sticks offered plenty of opportunities for people wishing to mess with election results.

In light of recent allegations of Russia’s involvement in electing Donald J. Trump as president of the United States, many worried about the security of the upcoming elections in the Netherlands. In response, Ronald Plasterk, Minister of Internal Affairs, announced that he would remove all computer software from the electoral process. This measure would lead to an entirely paper-based voting system.

Blockchain could change the future of voting

Dutch officials claim that paper voting is the safest option available today. A more accurate statement would be that paper is the least insecure option we have at this point. After all, it’s an illusion to think that one cannot tamper with non-electronic votes. That’s why the imperative is clear: we should aim to develop more secure ways of casting and counting votes.

Blockchain

Blockchain technology, already used by digital currencies like bitcoin, could be part of the solution. A blockchain is basically a database that is distributed over many different computers at the same time. All of these computers are connected to each other. As a result, a blockchain does not rely on a central hub where data can be manipulated. Each part of the database is constantly checking the others, making blockchain a very secure system.

The main benefit of a voting process backed by blockchain would be its robustness and transparency. Because of blockchain’s distributed nature, officials, journalists, and citizens would all be able to verify voting results. This would significantly reduce the risk of vote count manipulation.

A recent Forbes article describes a startup called Follow My Vote. They’re working on an open-source voting system that uses blockchain technology to let people vote from their own homes. Citizens would use a government-issued ID like DigID and a webcam identity check to log in and vote. Follow My Vote claims that their system is safe and anonymous.

Humans remain the weakest link

Despite blockchain’s potential, we’ll need more than just technology to tackle the problem of electoral integrity. Even if your voting system is technically sound, its value ultimately depends on its credibility.

Blockchain may be secure, but only a minor portion of the population is familiar with its workings. We’ve seen how politicians can convince people that facts are ‘fake news.’ Surely, they’d also be able to discredit blockchain technology if it showed results not to their liking.

One of the things Trump’s presidency has taught us so far, is that people believe what they want to believe. This social vulnerability is something to keep in mind when implementing blockchain technology into the voting process.

How would Trump deal with blockchain if it didn't suit him?

How would Trump deal with blockchain if the results didn’t suit him?

Dreams of democracy

In a republic of robots, a foolproof democratic system might be able to exist. But in a society of flesh and blood, a fully fair and secure democratic process will always be illusion. We may be able to get 99 percent of the way there, but no system will ever be without vulnerabilities.

We remain human. We make mistakes and we’re always at risk of manipulation. Nevertheless, our flawed nature should not discourage us from seeking improvement. If we believe in democracy, we should do everything in our power to establish the least insecure voting procedure possible.

That could mean giving blockchain a shot.

Want to learn more about cybersecurity? Read our blog on how to protect your business from a cyber attack.

Stijn Out
15 March 2017