Alex Berke

Cryptography-Based Voting and The US Election: Science Fiction & Stories From Potential Futures

These stories are from a two-part project. While this part is science fiction, the other part is about reality. Both parts are about mobile, blockchain, and cryptographically secure voting in the context of the US election system. (Reality Piece: link).
These stories consider two potential futures for US democracy, branching from our present. One is dystopian, the other utopian.

Mobile Voting, Lost Choices, and Plutocracy

From Crypto Voting + US Elections: Short Stories From Potential Futures (Dystopia)
The year is 2040 and today is election day. Alice is on her way to where she will vote, but it’s not the polls. The polls are open, but more out of adherence to a national tradition and heritage rather than utility. Alice still hears about people going to the polls in some places, mostly to protest what has come to be, but the media always portrays those folks as “tinfoil hat wearers.” These days, almost everyone votes remotely from the devices installed within their hands. Although history may see it as a small technical change, remote voting brought about radical changes to US democracy.
Voter turnout rates skyrocketed as each of the US states implemented mobile voting systems throughout the 20’s. As soon as mobile voting was allowed where Alice lived, ads for voting apps flooded her social media feed months before election season. When major social media platforms banned political ads, the ads for voting apps seemed to only replace them, often featuring endorsements from candidates who could no longer advertise for themselves directly (e.g., “‘Trust your vote with Voatz’ — Bradley 2028”).
The initial voting apps were just for smartphones. Authentication involved uploading some biometric data, or reading a few randomly chosen lines of patriotic text over video, with a novel machine learning system to analyze the video feed and ensure the voter’s identity. The “tinfoil hat wearers” had initially taken issue with whether or not the app’s servers later deleted this biometric data, but whatever — Alice and her friends knew there were enough video cameras around and videos of them online regardless. Anyhow, those were the old days of smartphones and apps. Most people don’t carry those clunky things around anymore. (Alice can remember the scary times she lost a smartphone and then broke another by dropping it in the toilet!) Now most people just use their embeddeds, the digital interfaces integrated into their bodies¹.
Still on her way to her company’s office, where she’ll vote, Alice thinks about the squabble she had with her boyfriend Bob the night before. She had told Bob how tempted she was to call in sick rather than go into work the next day. It was stupid — she knew this would hit a nerve with him. He went off on how her company could hold this against her, reminding her of how lucky she was to have her job. Like many of their friends, Bob had spent months out of work and down on luck, gradually winding down their shared savings. He had only recently found a steady flow of contract work, which had been fortuitous for both their bank account and their relationship.
But now alone again on her way to work, Alice is once again tempted to call in sick and turn around. She could vote at home today, and face the consequences tomorrow. To distract herself away from that temptation she instead tries to remember the names of the candidates. Maybe the incumbent’s name is “Smith”? And the challenger’s name ends with “Wurst”? Or just rhymes with? It bothers her that she can’t remember their names. Surely she used to know the name of the incumbent. But it doesn’t matter, so she instead thinks about Bob and where he is going this morning. Since he doesn’t work for a big corporation like her, he’s on his way to meet a vote-buyer who reached out to him. Something about the transaction with his vote-buyer feels more dignified to Alice than the election routine she is heading to. She’ll go into the office, the company will let her know how to vote, and then either her boss, Eve, or someone from HR, will observe over the office feed as she enters her remote ballot through her embeddeds. Alice had always felt the activity a bit degrading, especially back when she had a smartphone, years ago, and sometimes had to open her mouth awkwardly wide to provide the requisite biometric data for authentication to the mobile voting app. (The embeddeds made authentication seamless.) But there’s a perk: the company supplies lunch and everyone can go home early. Though Eve had mentioned this might be the last year with “free lunch.”
Alice liked to remember back when elections hadn’t always felt this way. The first time she had used a mobile voting app wasn’t because her company had wanted her to. It was because she had found someone willing to trade her a beer for her vote. She sipped while filling out her mobile ballot, while he watched over her shoulder. But then large companies like her employer made the process more efficient. They realized that influencing how their employees voted was more effective than lobbying. They extended their influence beyond their workforce by hiring “vote-recruiters” to go out and solicit additional votes on their behalf. Bob’s vote-buyer might even be a vote-recruiter from her company. There were some ultra-wealthy individuals that bought into the vote market as well (most had made their money from cryptocurrency-speculation back in the day, and tended to vote alike), and since there were vote-buying groups with diverging interests, presidential elections like this one remained competitive.
But besides there still being elections, much had changed during the country’s transition from democracy to plutocracy. Social groups that had once voted as majorities gradually lost their power as individuals were incentivized, or pressured, to vote otherwise. Social minorities lost their voices all together. As the country’s democratic landscape changed, the geographic one did as well. National parkland was sold, industrial waste flowed into rivers and wetlands as environmental restrictions were relaxed for the convenience of private industries.
The economic changes had happened gradually as well. There had been wealth inequality from the start, but income gaps widened in what seemed like a spiral as wealthy individuals and corporations acquired voting power from the masses to back policies and candidates that further aided their enrichment. As they became richer and average incomes stagnated, votes became relatively cheaper, or easier to gain.
Alice’s company was among the first to begin suggesting candidates to employees. A special meeting was scheduled each election day for the company to come together to “vote for their collective interests.” More explicit voting buying and selling was supposedly illegal, but well worth the risk for Alice’s cash-strapped friends, who had no trouble meeting vote-buyers. And the transaction was all too easy when votes were cast from a mobile app while the vote-buyer stood by.
Yet the transition to the mobile voting systems that brought about these changes had also been gradual, and far from seamless. The mobile voting initiatives started with goals to make voting easier and more accessible, and to increase voter participation, especially among young people. These goals were commendable, and the initiative attracted bipartisan support. Politicians added mobile voting to their campaign platforms², with some positioning the initiative as patriotic, others positioning it as pro-democratic, and most using it to position themselves as tech savvy. Much of the public was then frustrated when the roll-out of mobile voting systems was slowed by state-specific bureaucratic obstacles, as well as vocal opponents.
Cybersecurity experts and cryptographers made public statements about how the secrecy of physical voting booths was an invaluable asset to democracy and had no digital or mobile equal. “How could apps possibly ensure a ballot was cast in secret?” the experts exclaimed. They described how the privacy of voting booths made elections coercion-resistant: a voter could not prove to a potential vote-buyer how they voted, even if they wanted to, so there was little incentive to waste money trying to buy votes. Ballots were protected from purchase, and voters were protected from outside pressures, in a way that “secure” mobile voting technologies could not provide.
Despite the warnings from experts, public opinion continued to favor mobile voting, and states continued moving forward with their “mobile voting solution” contracts³. The experts wondered why. Were they simply the wrong spokespeople for their cause? Too old? Too technical to make arguments about society and democracy? They recruited young activists to join them and began staging PR stunts to spread their message.
Memes young activists tweeted: “Vote in Private! Drink in Public!”
This was back when Alice was in college, and several of her peers had gotten involved. A politically active friend had even pulled her in to join a protest event one election day, promising that they would make it fun, and that there would be free beer. The activists “sold” their votes to each other for beers outside polling places and then walked in to vote however they wanted to, in order to show how private voting booths made vote buying ineffective. Once back outside they drank their beers and shouted “Vote in Private! Drink in Public!” The younger activists took selfie videos of themselves chugging these beers, which they streamed on social media. Others made memes and tweeted slogans.
This memory felt far away to Alice now. She couldn’t imagine any of her current friends getting politically active, or even engaged. Why would they? Alice wondered why they had even cared to back then. Mobile voting was going to happen no matter how many memes they shared. Their activism was no match for the resources of the venture capitalists who had a stake in mobile voting startups. The marketing campaigns they funded kept political attention focused on goals to make voting easier, pushing the mobile voting initiative past its opposition. VCs also provided the financing to make the early mobile voting system deployments possible⁴. Cash-strapped municipalities found themselves suddenly flush with the funds to overhaul their antiquated voting machines — an opportunity they had long sought, but that tax-payer money had not provided.
The initial outcomes of the mobile voting pilots were mixed⁵. It seemed that instead of increasing voter turnout, the mobile apps were mostly used by people who would have otherwise gone to the polls. When voter participation rates did rise, celebration over this feat transitioned into concern as rumors of vote-buying and voter coercion surfaced and election officials began to question the authenticity of cast ballots.
The mobile voting technology companies tried to calm the alarm by promising to make their systems more “secure” with blockchain technology. Since neither the election officials nor politicians knew much about blockchains, this sounded reasonable to them, and “mobile voting solution” contracts were extended to give mobile voting a “second chance.” However, the voting tech companies then simply replaced their databases with off-the-shelf blockchain solutions that were developed and managed by large tech companies (some of whom were rumored to participate in voter coercion themselves), and never made their blockchain software open source or allowed outside audits⁶.
Election officials found themselves stuck in what seemed a balance of conflicts to make voting more accessible on the one hand, and more secure on the other, all the while working to stymie any unintended consequences of mobile voting programs. They knew voters had become accustomed to the convenience of voting remotely, so with the roll-back of mobile voting programs out of the question, they took new and creative measures to prevent voter “fraud.”
They proposed changes to voting rules: a voter could vote multiple times and only their last vote counted. They proposed extending the hours and days during which ballots could be cast. These measures were recommended as a way to circumvent the threats of voter coercion and vote-buying, as voters could update their ballots.
Some jurisdictions did eventually pass these measures, but then the voting markets just realigned. Early votes became cheaper, late votes more expensive. More importantly, the changes came too late. Much of the voting population was by then disinterested and barely followed politics.
Taking the time to vote again and update a ballot took time out of the day. Alice reasoned that since all of her neighbors would also not care enough to vote again, updating her ballot wouldn’t even matter. When she had once brought it up, Bob said voting again wasn’t worth the risk — her company made software that was in her embeddeds, and with the cameras and embeddeds of everyone else around, her boss Eve would somehow find out.
Alice thought again about where she was going, and where Bob was going. Once at work, her morning would start with a meeting about “coming together as a company,” and voting for “shared goals,” and “collective interests.” She tried again to remember the names of the candidates. This was the first year she couldn’t, and something about this newness in what had become routine nagged her.
Whose goals could she share without knowing who the candidates representing these “shared goals” even were? The desire to avoid her office that had been bothering her all morning came to a head: She wanted to go anywhere other than this meeting.
She had awkwardly sat in it too many times before, each time feeling uncomfortable under Eve’s watchful presence. But her absence would be noticed. Could she go and then leave? No…that too could be held against her. Did she even need this job?
Maybe she could use her and Bob’s remaining savings while finding other ways to make things work? She remembered years ago when she had chosen to take her job, from what felt like a set of options. She remembered her excitement, but also a sense of heaviness at the thought that she had to choose the right job over the others. She had a sudden urge to turn around, to choose not to go to work, if only to momentarily restore the heavy feeling of choices. She could choose to go vote elsewhere.
Alice messaged Bob. “Where are you?”
Bob sent back his coordinates. He was still at home. “Just about to head out.”
“Wait,” she messaged back. “I’ll come sell mine with you.”
[1] In 2040 most people use embeddeds. What was previously shown on screens is now either surfaced directly from people’s palms, or projected onto a thin lens that sits within the eye. Embeddeds led to an explosion in human-computer-interaction (HCI) research, fueled by a quest to find the most subtle and natural ways to control these new interfaces, where control extends well beyond the primitive uses of pressing “buttons” and composing text.
Concepts from the outdated technologies of T9 keyboards made a comeback. With just a user’s subtle gestures of fingers with embeddeds, 10 digits (plus advanced autocomplete technology) again became the primary way to use keyboards, and express anything digitally.
A hand with embedded digits.
[2] Not science fiction: Andrew Yang is a 2020 presidential candidate and has made blockchain-based mobile voting part of his campaign platform.
[3] Not science fiction: A mobile voting company named Voatz has piloted its system in several US elections, such as its 2019 pilot in Denver Colorado. In its contract with the City and County of Denver, the Voatz app is referred to as the “Solution” [see contract].
[4] Not science fiction: A venture capitalist named Bradley Tusk has provided the funding for US municipalities to pilot the Voatz voting app, through “Tusk Philanthropies” (see section 3.A of the contact between Voatz and the City and County of Denver).
[5] Not science fiction: There have been multiple studies on how internet-voting has impacted voter turnout rates, and the outcomes have been mixed. A concise summary of such studies is here.
[6] Not science fiction: The creators of the Voatz voting app claim its internet voting technology is secure, partly due to its use of blockchain technology. Yet Voatz has not identified the attack vector which a blockchain secures its technology against. Blockchains are often leveraged to ensure trust with the transparent transaction of data, but Voatz has not made its software nor its blockchain openly auditable to the public. Despite warnings and published concerns from security experts, the Voatz system has been contracted for pilots in West VirginiaDenver, and Utah.

A National Holiday and Democracy to Celebrate

From Crypto Voting + US Elections: Short Stories From Potential Futures (Utopia)
The year is 2040 and today is Election Day. Alice heads out to the polls, leaving her boyfriend Bob at home, responsible for baking the pumpkin pie they had prepped together. Bob had already voted the Wednesday before, at a quiet time when he could avoid the crowds. Alice instead liked to wait for the final day of voting, when she could engage in the lively scene at the polls. This year she is wearing a red and white striped top and flowing blue skirt.
The scene has grown more crowded, and with increasing patriotic pageantry, each year since Election Day became a national holiday. The creation of the holiday had greatly increased voter turnout rates, which then climbed even higher when early voting days were extended. This holiday is a day when democracy is celebrated, with people flocking to public parks or private yards for BBQs, though only after voting. It’s a day when red, white, and blue outfits are repurposed from the previous July 4th⁷, and when communities have the time and space to reflect on what’s worth voting for.
Not only did past years of social changes help increase voter participation and reduce voter suppression; concerns of election interference and hacking also diminished with technical advancements. These technical advancements had even made their way into the Election Day pageantry.
“I Voted” pin with a ballot receipt on the back.
Voters like Alice have fun updating their patriotic outfits with the “I Voted” pins they receive upon casting their ballots. These pins are also small gadgets, each with the voter’s ballot “receipt” on the back⁸, and the nerdier voters, like Alice, know the cryptography behind how they work. Each cast ballot is encrypted, and the “receipt” is the cryptographic hash of the encrypted ballot.
The “receipts” are part of a system that allows anyone to check the integrity of the election. Ballots are no longer tallied by “black box” voting machinery, they are instead tallied in an open online system that is transparent. The “receipts” allow voters to check that their ballots are properly recorded on the online “bulletin board,” while the encryption of ballots keeps how they voted secret⁹.
Enough voters like Alice understand the cryptographic tools that ensure the integrity and security of the election systems. And there only need to be a few to check that the ballot tallying system works as promised. Most voters need not bother to check their receipts. It only takes a few “election auditors,” or concerned voters who care enough to check, to discover a discrepancy and raise alarm.
On her way out of the polls after voting, Alice looks around at her neighbors, and at the day ahead of her, with a giddy feeling of excitement. Past Novembers had been cold, but this year the weather is perfect for the Election Day BBQ at her friend Carol’s place. She’ll see her friends there, drink a couple of beers, likely chat about politics, and have a slice of her and Bob’s now “famous” pumpkin pie.
The worst thing that could happen would be her preferred candidate’s loss, but recent polling had been in her favor.
Alice feels a buzz — a message from Bob. “I burnt the pie.”
Her glee momentarily drains. So it’s not a perfect day in utopia, she muses. Their famous pie has been ruined. She instinctively reaches to touch her “I Voted” pin, and with that regains the feeling that all is well.
[7] Stores sell Election Day merchandise just as aggressively as they sell July 4th, New Years, or Thanksgiving themed items. They stock their aisles with red, white, and blue plates, napkins, BBQ equipment, hats, and any other patriotic apparel voters might buy, months before the holiday. (Thrifty voters buy what immediately goes on sale the day after Election Day, in anticipation for next time.)
Election Day merchandise.
[8] Upon casting a ballot, a voter receives an “I Voted” pin with their encrypted ballot receipt on the back. In some municipalities, the receipts are embedded in the pins with RFID tags; in others they are printed and pasted QR codes; in the simplest cases they are the fully printed out cryptographic hashes of the encrypted ballot.
“I Voted” pin with a ballot receipt on the back.
[9] The cryptographically secure election system described is not a work of science fiction. Cryptographers have proposed and built such “end-to-end verifiable” systems (e.g., “Simple Verifiable Elections”ScantegrityPrêt à VoterWombatHelios). What is science fiction is the initiative to use them. (Note: These systems do not use blockchains.)
Thank you to Rhys Lindmark (MIT Digital Currency Initiative), Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat (US Vote Foundation), and Hannah Sears for contributing their helpful time and feedback.

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Comments

February 13th, 2020

One of the best reads on Hackernoon I’ve read. Thanks for the post! Very relevant in light of everything happening these days.

February 13th, 2020

Thanks for the shoutout!

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