With the U.S. Midterm Elections happening this week, anxious excitement begets concerns over voter transparency, polling access and fraud allegations from previous election cycles.
Could voting on the blockchain be the answer?
In recent years, blockchain enthusiasts cited open-source technology as a viable tool for increasing transparency in polling by providing an on-chain “ledger” of votes. Political organizations and campaigns have also explored using blockchain technology to systematize campaign organization and generate alternative funding streams in the form of NFTs and cryptocurrency donations.
On paper, these are natural extensions of a technological use case – bringing a verifiable on-chain ledger, voting mechanisms and governance-based participation to an arguably arduous electoral system. However, like many things in Web3, we must contextualize the potential challenges of bringing blockchain to the polls, before envisaging its widespread implementation.
Both the 2020 and 2016 Presidential Elections were characterized by election fraud claims, reported to have taken the form of duplicitous voting, fraudulent use of absentee ballots, and lost mail-ins. The Associated Press has since debunked these allegations, after their exhaustive review found that fewer than 475 potential instances of voter fraud occurred out of 25 million votes cast.
Despite the marginal impact of voter fraud on election outcomes, claims of voter fraud pose a real threat to Americans’ ability to participate in democracy, as the imposition of new policies could make it more difficult for millions of eligible voters to hit the polls.
In 2018, West Virginia became the first state to use blockchain technology to cast and record votes. With help from Boston-based startup Voatz, a few dozen voters cast their ballots using mobile phones, which would identify them according to thumbprint scans, or other biometric tools. Pilot votes were then recorded on a publicly verifiable ledger (the blockchain), providing instantaneous verification and results.
In theory, on-chain voting could increase transparency, lower costs associated with elections, streamline bookkeeping, and provide assurance that all votes are accounted for. Not to mention, mobile-first voting would likely promote greater participation, allowing those who otherwise weigh the action of voting against work and familial obligations, the ability to submit ballots virtually.
Blockchain also presents possible value to campaign organizers and politicians themselves, through alternative funding opportunities, volunteer-incentive structures, and community organizing opportunities.
According to Eric Wilson, managing Partner of Startup Caucus, several campaigns have sought out cryptocurrency donations as an alternative fundraising source. Despite a somewhat muddy regulatory landscape when it comes to these donations, several Web3 startups and organizations, including Engage Raise have cropped up to facilitate legally-compliant crypto-donations for political campaigns.
Thanks to these types of tools, “elected officials can actively participate in crypto in a manner that’s going to align with what they were trying to to do anyway [fundraising], which is a more compelling method of educating lawmakers,” said Engage Raise’s Advisor, and the CEO of Disco, Evin McMullen.
Other campaigns are exploring Decentralized Autonomous Organizations’ (or DAOs’) tokenomics structures to encourage monetary and participatory buy-in, as DAOs allow for enhanced decision-making and organizing.
For More… WTF Is.. A DAO
Finally, Web3 also could offer volunteers potential engagement opportunities and rewards for their participation. For instance, campaign organizers might offer their volunteers financial or other tokenized rewards for completing tasks they’d otherwise be doing for free, including knocking on doors, making calls, and hosting and attending campaign events.
“I think there is a real potential to integrate communities into campaign efforts, and on the advocacy side of things, there is so much potential value that DAOs could bring to advocacy work,” said Scott Bunnen, a fellow at the Decentralized Future Council.
The possibilities of blockchain voting are not without their challenges. Let’s pull back the covers of what voting and other forms of democratic participation could actually look like on-chain. The leading concern regarding on-chain voting relates to the question of anonymity and data-usage.
McMullen is also CEO of Disco, a Web3 startup focused on promoting data sovereignty through the creation of personal data backpack, or a digital “identity” made up of your private data that’s owned and controlled by you, and can be accessible across online platforms. Disco’s data backpacks allow you to choose what personal information is shared, and with whom. While there seems promise in some areas of voting on chain, others are mired with potential concerns. That’s mainly because of the way that publicized votes could erode systemic and fundamental principles of trust and free speech. Publicization of time-stamped voter data is of great value to political organizations, campaigns and companies.
Consequently, the voter is at risk of relinquishing personal information for others’ advantage.
“Because the financial settlement layer of public ledgers is intertwined with ownership and participation, we see on-chain voting as an appropriate activity for DAOs,” she said. “However, for nation states, it’s wildly ill-suited.”
Another issue surrounds cryptocurrency adoption and the technical understanding required to onboard diverse and distinct voter demographics. By and large, cryptocurrency and Web3 comfortability is low at present. Large-scale adoption of on-chain voting and community engagement would require a concerted effort to educate and onboard voters, as well as politicians and campaign organizers.
Finally, digitizing and DAO-ifying the electoral process (making it mobile-first and integrating token incentive structures) could erode the positive externalities of grassroots community organizing inherent to political campaigning.
Would we lose intrinsic participation and community engagement when we make it transactional?
“Active campaign participation is a part of our democratic system. That’s an orientation we want to encourage,” said DFC Fellow Scott. “There remains a great deal of skepticism and suspicion amongst campaign professionals, especially given the crypto market's recent crash.”
Greater resolution in crypto-regulation and a higher-held popular opinion among politicians on both sides of the aisle are required before we see any mass-adoption of blockchain technology in voting and campaign mechanics.
Like many things in Web3, time will tell how these probabilities play out. And while blockchain affords the possibility of greater transparency, participation and ownership over typically bureaucratic systems, we must contextualize the application of these ideals and attempt to solve existing challenges within the system.
For instance, how can we use the blockchain to promote voter eligibility, decrease misinformation and perhaps limit voter suppression policies from being leveraged against vulnerable populations? Rather than upend current voting systems entirely, we should instead focus on solving tangible issues and how blockchain could help remedy them.
This is not to say that blockchain should be expunged from politics altogether. Rather, and as Disco’s CEO Evin suggests, “how might we assure an individual’s qualification to participate in voting, or document the fact that they have voted?” Similarly, we might address transparency in other ways, such as using blockchain to enhance transparency in campaign spend and fundraising?
Ultimately, policy-makers and builders alike must exhaust the potential positives and negatives of blockchain adoption in all facets of our electoral system, and ensure that transparency is maintained, and everyone can participate in voting. As Eric Wilson put’s it best, “not everything needs to be blockchained.”
Isabel Doonan is the CEO and Co-Founder of Girls Gotta Eth, and Sacreage, a web3 startup working to expand tooling for crypto philanthropy. With a background in Fintech and ESG, she is deeply passionate about the intersection of blockchain and climate funding, as she works to build a better, more equitable future in which everyone can participate in philanthropy.
This article and all the information in it does not constitute financial advice. If you don’t want to invest money or time in Web3, you don’t have to. As always: Do your own research.