Blockchain technology has gotten a lot of coverage in past months due to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Litecoin. Basically, the fractions of a Bitcoin earned by bitcoin “miners” are their reward for verifying blockchain reactions. To verify a bitcoin transaction, the blockchain utilizes a decentralized network of computers which perform complex algorithmic computations which prove that I, the payer, am sending what I say I’m sending, and that you, the receiver, will receive what you are owed. Once a transaction is complete, it is added to the blockchain as a completed transaction; a block. Each subsequent transaction is then added to that transaction creating a chain. The value of blockchain is that one: the verification method means that there is no one central authority which can be manipulated, nor can that central authority adjust the rules, and two: in order to “hack” the blockchain and change transaction amounts or identities a hacker must also manipulate all the following blocks which come after the transaction in question. This is good for security because this is incredibly difficult to do.
So, if the general goal of our democracy is to increase voter participation by making it easier to vote, why isn’t the U.S. taking advantage of blockchain technology to facilitate mobile-based voting? In one sense, we already are. West Virginia, which many don’t think of as a locus of emerging technology, has provided the option to vote via blockchain statewide for members of the armed forces stationed abroad. Due to the precarious nature of overseas mailing, West Virginia is utilizing blockchain to ensure that armed forces members serving overseas are able to vote, and that through this secure network, their information will be protected.
I think it would be valuable to start a trial run to see what challenges this new system would face by including armed forces personnel first, then all ex-pats, and then finally expand the program to all early voting or absentee voting. This would have an enormous positive impact on those who aren’t able to physically make it to the polling station, and it’s possible that it may someday be as simple as downloading an app to vote. The ramifications of that would be huge, especially given that youth turnout for voting is the lowest among all age groups.
For cryptocurrencies, the incentive for people to devote their computer to solving the algorithms is that they earn fractions of a coin via the “mining” process each time a transaction occurs. The more time the computer devotes to verifying the transactions, the more coins are “mined” This same concept could be applied for voting blockchains, but instead of earning Bitcoin, you would earn Publicoin™. It’s not actually a thing yet but it could be! These coins could be used to pay for public goods like driver’s licenses, parking meters, and bus passes. This system would incentivize more people to vote, as well as provide benefit for those who use their computer to ensure the voting information is secure.
So, start small and work out the kinks, and then scale upwards as resources permit. Technology doesn’t always have to be the anathema to Democracy.