Blockchain based voting – can India warm up to it?

In continuation of the previous part where we got a basic understanding of what a blockchain is and how it works; we prod further to understand the core of this article, which is voting with the use of a blockchain system and the patent that was filed by the United Stated Postal Service (USPS). So, is blockchain based voting viable in India? Let’s find out!

What does the Patent say?

USPS filed a patent in February, 2020 under Patent Number 20200258338. It claimed that the citizens’ right to vote can be much more effectively and securely implemented through a distributed ledger technology called a blockchain. The abstract of the patent application claims that this voting system uses the advantages of blockchain technology while streamline voting make the system more reliable. Using blockchain technology allows the tracking of only necessary data in a way that is secure. It also allows others to easily confirm that the data has not been tampered with. 

How does it work?

The abstract of the patent application reads:

A voting system 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 system separates voter identification and votes to ensure vote anonymity, and stores votes on a distributed ledger in a blockchain.”

Although the entire system looks simple on a cursory glance, implementation of this system is a bit more complex than what meets the eye.

On a deeper reading of the patent application, the modus operandi of this system becomes clear. Voters, generally, register with with the Election Authority in confirmation of which, they receive an identity card similar to the Voter’s ID in India. As the first step, a registered user receives a computer readable code which conforms to a physical ballot. This code contains ballot selection information and electronic signature of the registered user. This information is fed into the computer and the “Blockchain Access Layer” saves it. This layer would also hold a ballot and election identifier already entered by the official election authority. Once the user enters their information, the Blockchain Access Layer generates a vote identification token.

“Database I”, in communication with the Blockchain Access Layer would store the ballot selections and electronic signature. Another database, “Database II” in communication with the Blockchain Access Layer stores the vote identification token.

When the system confirms the electronic signature and validates it, another database called the “Blockchain Database”, stores the vote identification token and the ballot selection with a location pointer each, thereby making it easily accessible and readily available through the location pointer.

Why use this tech? What are the advantages?

The election technology of the present – the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) – raises many doubts and is therefore, fodder for conspiracy theorists. The questions range from – Does it really register the vote for the candidate the voter intends to vote? Is the system fool-proof? Is the system connected to the internet and how does it route traffic? Why are there differences when re-counts are called for? Can the results be altered in favor of one candidate after all the voting is done? How does all the data flow from the voter to the ECI?

At the outset, the prospective system can extinguish, if not all, most major questions and doubts that arise regarding the current system; consequentially proving to be a much better and improved system.

Transparency & Security

One of the attention-grabbing advantages is that the prospective system proves to be very transparent and yet secure. Hacking a blockchain is unheard of and is almost next to impossible due to the very nature of blockchain being a distributed ledger system. Since every user becomes part of the blockchain by merely participating in the activity, ideally, every voter will then have a ledger of all the votes punched through the blockchain system. Votes registered against each user would be stored in anonymized form, allowing space for right to privacy to operate in conjunction with the right to vote. This brings unprecedented security and transparency for all the votes.

This also perfectly paves the way for another advantage – that votes can be very easily counted and kept track of, in real-time, even by people who vote in the blockchain. Every single voter in blockchain would have a ledger of all the voters and votes. Therefore, the record can be checked by the voters themselves. Besides being a much more effective mechanism in terms of count, this is also a cost and time cutting measure. This further means that there would also be no requirement to re-count votes as the result from the counting of votes can be verified by each individual user.

By the very nature of blockchain, every transaction recorded (in this case, vote) is in real-time and once the validation process is over, the record is a permanent immutable record. This feature makes the voting system more accountable and less susceptible to manipulation. As each voter can trace his vote and make sure that it is registered against the candidate the person voted for, questions of fraud or manipulation of votes are easily put to rest. This is also an effective and easily referable record keeping measure.

Privacy

Another layer of voter privacy is added since this system does not rely on the use of citizens’ personal information. According to the patent that was filed, all the information resides with the central authority that issues the computer readable code to the registered user. Moreover, should a voter’s electronic signature be considered personal information, it too is hashed and used as anonymized information. This function strengthens the case for the privacy of voters using blockchain system.

Convenience

Voters are also given the opportunity to vote from the comfort of their own home. With another wave of the corona virus looming over our heads, a possible outbreak of bird-flu, and implementation of work from home, people would be reluctant to step outside the safety of their homes to exercise their right to vote. This option presents a solution to these concerns as well. Further, the blockchain-based voting system would also make sure that people who are away from their registered address due to work or other engagements get to vote from wherever they are, thereby making the elected government a better representation of the people’s choice and voice.

Are there any precedents for using blockchain technology for voting?

Contrary to what one might think, this patent application is not the first time a country has come forward to think innovatively about voting mechanisms and election technology. Blockchain voting as a system, as of the time of writing this article, has been implemented by several territories. In West Virginia, USA, an interesting piece of technology combining the use of encryption and blockchain registers the votes of military servicemen serving overseas. They are able to vote from their place of posting using their mobile phone devices. Countries like Brazil, Denmark, South Korea, and Switzerland are also exploring blockchain voting.

However, it is interesting to note here that the leader in this field, by a big margin, is Estonia. In 2012, a couple of years after this system was formulated, the Estonian government setup a system wherein citizens are provided with unique identification cards. Using digital ID cards, the citizens were enabled to vote on the blockchain quickly and securely with ease. Interestingly, Estonians are even allowed to vote multiple times through the days of election using this system, where each subsequent vote cancels the previously recorded vote.

Can we implement this in India?

The fact is that there is still no law in place to regulate the operation of blockchain enabled systems in India. In fact, there is very little jurisprudence developed on the subject of blockchain technology. The first time legal attention was drawn to the issue in India was on April 5th, 2018, when the Reserve Bank of India issued a “Statement on Developmental and Regulatory Policies”. Paragraph 13 of this statement was worded as follows “not to deal with or provide services to any individual or business entities dealing with or settling virtual currencies and to exit the relationship, if they already have one, with such individuals/business entities, dealing with or settling virtual currencies (VCs)”, banning the trade of cryptocurrencies in India.

As a follow up measure, the RBI also issued a Circular dated 06.04.2018, “Prohibition on dealing in Virtual Currencies (VCs)”, which specifically prohibited dealing with Virtual Currencies (VCs) or cryptocurrencies. However, it is important to note that these notifications issued by the RBI did not deal with the use or operation of blockchain technology as a whole but that of cryptocurrencies or Virtual Currencies specifically.

Legal developments in India

It is, however, pertinent to note the Supreme Court’s stance on blockchain technology. There have been multiple petitions filed in the Supreme Court challenging these aforesaid notifications prohibiting the trade of these virtual currencies, issued by the RBI. In all these cases, the Court took the case of blockchain technology as a specific separate entity and made some very important observations.

The Court made a mention of the White Paper published by Institute for Development and Research in Banking Technology (‘IDRBT’) and considered its recommendation that there was no restriction on the use of blockchain technology for any purpose other than for crypto-currencies. It encouraged the Government to explore the use of blockchain technology for transitioning towards a digital economy. Furthermore, it also emphasized the technology’s advantages, reproducing a part of the aforesaid report which states that blockchain technology has some important advantages in controlling fraud and maintaining privacy of its users. This marks one of the first victories for blockchain technologies in India (although there is a lot to come since the govt. is planning a piece of legislation to ban cryptocurrencies).

Recent Trends

At this juncture it is important to take note of the statistics which spell out that since this judgment, there have been a massive increase in Indians interacting with cryptocurrency. In fact, a recent article posted in Hindustan Times titled “Many traders and people buying bitcoins from India, says Function X’s David Ben Kay”, claimed that Indians have also bought into the recent increase in use of cryptocurrency. This is further cemented by the fact that Tata Group of companies and PayPal are involved in the business of cryptocurrency. If nothing else, this spells an increase in familiarity, interaction and usage of blockchain technology.

Issues around authority

As there is a central statutory banking authority in the form of Reserve Bank of India, there is another central authority for controlling and overseeing proceedings during the elections the Election Commission of India. What is peculiar about the ECI is that, unlike the RBI, it is a Constitutional Authority whose authority flows from Article 324 of the Indian Constitution. Since blockchain by its very nature is a decentralized system, the determination of the powers residing with the ECI and the extent to which decentralization can be permitted, is a critical question. Besides that, ‘Who holds the decentralized power?’ and ‘What is the incentive for them to act as miners and nodes?’ would be another issue.

Since this would affect the very fundamental advantage of a transparent yet private voting environment, the allocation of power would be a big question in case this system is implemented in India. If the decentralized power was still with the office holders of the ECI, then the newly inducted system would be no different to the current system. Another challenge that this brings to the table is, what happens should something go wrong? Who would be the authority to report and correct the wrong?

Indian Demography

Yet another factor to be taken into consideration is the demographic of the Indian society, in terms of their economic capability and access to internet and computer. However, it also important to note that India is one of the world’s biggest smartphone markets in world. With the effect of the pandemic this number has grown, with classes and work happening off the site. This would also be a very interesting factor to see play out should this new technology become the norm, as it may enable voters to vote with their smartphones in the comfort of their homes.

One other issue in using this tech is in verifying voter identity. In order for blockchain voting to work, there a requirement of a system that prevents people from voting more than once or voting in an election where they are ineligible to vote. That gets tricky on the blockchain because verification relies on a central authority to verify citizenship or residency documentation.

Challenges of Data Privacy

Taking cues from the Estonian example, the government can implement this system to work in tandem with the Aadhaar scheme, but there are two major issues. The scheme was carried out in a haphazard manner and is riddled with issues. Moreover, it has also been affirmed by the Supreme Court in Justice K. S. Puttaswamy case (5J bench) that Aadhaar card cannot be forced upon any individual or be the reason some public service is denied to any individual. One other simpler reason would be reiteration of the fact that India does not have a personal data protection law. Aadhaar IDs already have a scan of every individual’s personal information in non-anonymized form. This would just mean that the people are coughing up personal sensitive information to the Government just to exercise their right to vote.

Reiterating the aforesaid fact, India as of yet does not have a full-fledged legislation for use and operation of personal or non-personal data of individuals. One of the important elements of blockchain technology that people exist as addresses, public and private keys. This is one essential method by which the identity of people is taken away therefore ensuring security in the blockchain.

The Verdict

Although a noble idea, the technology is at a nascent stage. With the absence of a personal data protection law implementing such a system would spell catastrophe and chaos. However, signs that Indians are increasingly using this system and getting familiar with it are a positive step towards the development of a robust regulatory environment capable of sustaining such an idea.

Upon solving the major issues, such as the ones pointed above in this article, blockchain based voting can give the current system of EVMs a run for their money and be a solid alternative.  Implementing this system as the only system to vote in India would also bring in unprecedented challenges. Nevertheless, in my opinion, upon finding some solutions to the issues posed, this system would have to be brought in as an alternative to the present system giving the option for the voter to choose. This would allow room for improvement of the technology and once it is in a stable state having earned the trust of the citizens, the Government and the ECI can think of scrapping the EVMs and adopting blockchain as a mode to vote in India.

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References

  1. Can Block-chain Be Used for Voting? USPS Apparently Thinks So, Dan Clarendon, https://marketrealist.com/p/can-block-chain-be-used-for-voting/
  2. United States Patent Application No: 20200258338, US Patent & Trademark Office, http://appft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PG01&p=1&u=/netahtml/PTO/srchnum.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=20200258338.PGNR.&OS=&RS=
  3. The Patented QFS Block-chain Secure Voting System by United States Postal Service, BitCoin news, https://thebitcoinnews.com/the-patented-qfs-block-chain-secure-voting-system-by-united-states-postal-service/
  4. How Block-chain Voting Works & Why We Need It, Bennett Garner, https://coincentral.com/how-block-chain-voting-works-why-we-need-it/
  5. Internet and Mobile Association of India vs. Reserve Bank of India, Supreme Court of India, https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2018/19230/19230_2018_4_1501_21151_Judgement_04-Mar-2020.pdf
  6. Many traders and people buying bitcoins from India, says Function X’s David Ben Kay, Kul Bhushan, https://tech.hindustantimes.com/tech/news/many-traders-and-people-buying-bitcoin-from-india-says-function-x-s-david-ben-key-71608463459979.html
  7. Key Highlights of Aadhar Judgment, SFLC, https://www.sflc.in/key-highlights-aadhaar-judgment

Nathaniel Andrews

Nathaniel is a graduate of Tamil Nadu National Law University, 2019 and since then he has developed a keen interest in Cyber and technology laws. He worked in a leading law firm and contracts, in terms of drafting and reviewing them. He has also advised prestigious organisations on questions in Technology laws, Corporate and Commercial laws and contract law.

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