LOGAN SANDLER— As the U.S. presidential election races into the final stretch, one question has remained atop the headlines: will the expected surge of mail-in ballots overwhelm the postal service? On September 17, 2020, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, in a discussion concerning pre-election preparations, asked Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, “[W]hat is your specific plan to address the misinformation coming from the administration, [and] increase confidence in the United States Postal Service’s ability to safely and securely deliver ballots? And how will you use your position as Postmaster General to protect our democracy from forces actively trying to undermine confidence in the election?” DeJoy responded that he at times had “disagreed with the President publicly on that particular issue,” and further provided “we’re very well prepared to support the mail-in-vote process.” DeJoy’s answer comes on the heels of President Trump’s recent declaration that voting by mail in 2020 is “the greatest scam in the history of politics.” Such controversies, in part, highlight the need to modernize the process of contemporary voting procedures.
A month earlier in August, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) published a patent application from the U.S. Postal Service (“USPS”) that claims a “Secure Voting System” based on blockchain technology. Blockchain is a form of distributed ledger technology – a growing database of records or transactions that are not subject to any form of centralized control, such as a bank. Instead, users on a blockchain network independently verify a transaction’s validity. Once confirmed, transactions are sorted into a block. Next, the block is cryptographically linked to the preceding block, thereby producing a permanent unalterable public record. This linking makes each block virtually impossible to change. The creation of Bitcoin and the subsequent rise of cryptocurrency have raised vital questions about legal and regulatory protections, financial permanency, and the role of currency in society and culture. But now blockchain technology presents us with another question: can the technology forever change the future of voting?
Amidst the controversy encircling the USPS, one may view the agency’s patent application as a means of exploring a more secure alternative to mail-in voting. The application describes the invention as “a voting system that can use the security of blockchain and the mail to provide a reliable voting system.” Although it is clear that this technology will not be used for this election cycle, blockchain voting platforms have previously launched at the state level to great success. Platforms like Voatz have been successfully deployed at the Michigan Democratic Convention and the Utah Republican Convention. Recently, MIT researchers uncovered potential security vulnerabilities on Voatz’s platform; however, the CEO of Voatz indicated that the findings were based on an older version of the platform and therefore, presented a false conclusion.
As currently drafted, it is unclear whether the USPS’s patent application on blockchain technology will ultimately be successful. In the United States, patent law necessitates that an invention must pass novelty and nonobviousness requirements. On that account, blockchains have been widely implemented since the inception of the Bitcoin blockchain in 2009. Correspondingly, the prevalence of this open-source software presents issues for applicants seeking to demonstrate a new and nonobvious innovation. However, this requirement has not precluded inventors from successfully receiving patents on blockchain voting systems. For example, in 2017, the USPTO issued a patent to Blockchain Technologies Corporation for an invention concerning a system and method for securely receiving and counting votes in an election.
The USPS application provides that the voting blockchain would be based on the Ethereum open software platform or other similar platforms. The platform, functioning like a blockchain-based mail-in voting system, would utilize computer-readable codes to verify identity: “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.”
A vote cast on such a shared, distributed ledger, would be recorded expeditiously, and thus, any perceived ballot tampering of the past would be drastically reduced or altogether removed. Paul Madsen, technical lead at Hedera Hashgraph, commented on the proposed USPS patent’s functionality by noting “the votes of individual voters would be recorded, either on the blockchain or effectively timestamped and then recorded elsewhere and so both help to mitigate the risk of double voting, or vote manipulation as well as give the voter confidence through transparency of the process.” The voting blockchain’s ability to diffuse the risk of double voting is analogous to the critical issue of “double-spending” that Satoshi Nakamoto solved with the invention of the Bitcoin blockchain. Essentially, a consensus mechanism commonly known as “proof-of-work” prevents cryptocurrencies from being spent twice or concurrently at two or more places.
Congress has substantial authority to determine how federal elections are run. This power can extend to voting procedures and the reporting of results. While a blockchain voting tool was contemplated for remote Senate voting amid the coronavirus outbreak, it remains to be seen whether the USPS platform has garnered widespread support from legislators. Nevertheless, Darren Soto, a U.S. Representative, believes that the voting system is a “great idea” and could be employed gradually, beginning in regions where digital voting is currently used.
Some believe that the American election system is not entirely ready to implement blockchain voting technology on a national scale. This belief is vindicated by the fact that the new voting system would require a digital platform and likely an internet connection, “two things that are not easily accessible to many Americans.” Although blockchain voting systems may inherently possess these issues, the platform’s ability to “streamline and secure mail-in voting,” would make it difficult for politicians to launch campaigns questioning the integrity of such a voting system.
In the end, voting must be easy, user-friendly, and tamper-proof. A blockchain voting system represents a technological solution to these ever-critical needs while bringing our voting procedures into the digital age, in likely the most secure and transparent way possible.