By Marcel Massarani
Everyone has heard of cryptocurrency or blockchain technology in some fashion, but few have taken it as seriously as a regulatory, economic, and democratic tool as the State of Wyoming. The Legislature made headlines last year when it became the first state to recognize decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) and provide them with a specialized LLC business structure. DAOs are democratically controlled entities that exist on the blockchain, governed by a form of “digital constitution” executing rules and user commands through smart contracts. DAOs range from as simple as a shared bank account to as complex as an entire business hierarchy or political action committee, purely existing in the form of code. Former Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang famously launched the Lobby3 DAO last year which is designed to be just that: a decentralized members-based lobbying organization, implementing a one-token one-vote system to distribute funds, selecting recipients, and directing policy. Wyoming is also the site of “CityDAO,” an experimental 40-acre parcel in Wyoming that is owned and operated via a DAO with over 10,000 “citizens.”
Despite Wyoming’s forward-thinking policies on technology and finance, its election procedures are far from perfect. Based on independent analysis, Wyoming scores poorly for ease of voting and has less than stellar scores for ballot security. In a state with less than 600,000 people, even small inaccuracies or voter suppression can greatly sway the outcome of elections. Wyoming limits voting registration to the DMV, offers no online registration, does not offer permanent mail voter lists, or online ballot tracking. Furthermore, the state added a voter ID requirement after the 2020 elections, requiring requisite documents and a trip to the DMV to obtain them, and lacks reasonable accommodations for those who forget them. Lastly, the state does not conduct regular election-wide audits. Currently, Wyoming legislators are seeking to strip the Secretary of the State’s powers to oversee elections, because the Republican nominee is a firm denier of the 2020 election results. Thus, an electoral system that is provably secure and promotes social trust and efficient participation has never been more important in the state of Wyoming. I propose that a blockchain-enabled voting system is perhaps the best solution, although it will be an evolving experiment.
During the 2020 elections the influx of mail-in ballots resulted in delayed counting and reporting of ballots which, in turn, led to agitation of partisan groups and increased distrust in the process, including from members of the State’s legislature and political candidates. Amid the chaos, discussion of digital voting was renewed, but quickly ignored, in favor of mail in voting. There is no shortage of stories detailing faulty voting machines or malicious hackers attempting to influence elections, and few were comfortable with the idea that a web portal or biometrically secured login would suffice to dispel these concerns. Meanwhile, those in the blockchain community were left wondering why the rest of the world didn’t see the solution hiding in plain sight.
Blockchains, while generally associated with cryptocurrencies, are truly just digital ledgers of data that can record anything from financial transactions to votes, authenticate each entry, and execute automated commands based on that data. They provide a form of “digital constitution” or rules that manage the system and constrain human actors. This ledger is distributed and simultaneously stored on every device connected to it, making it inclusively accountable and transparent. This provides a sense of trust in the inherently trustless environment of digital systems. Each user may audit the entire history of the system, checking that each recorded piece of data is authentic and non-duplicative. The system is processed without a central party, thus relieving concerns of mishandling votes. As Jacob Beckett says in his Law Review Article Blockchain Voting: WY Not, “[i]mplementing a transparent, secure, and faster manner of casting and counting votes seems to be the only option in avoiding a repeat of what will surely come to be known as one of the most tumultuous voting cycles in history.”
The use of technological advancements in voting is not a novel concept. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) grants federal funds to states that modernize voting equipment, given compliance with several requirements (omitted for brevity), none of which are precluded by a blockchain-enabled system. The most relevant requirement here is that each state must adopt uniform standards for what constitutes a vote within the system. Wyoming’s Election Code does not directly define what constitutes a “vote.” However, Wyoming is one of several states that requires certification from the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), established under HAVA, which certifies the hardware and software of voting systems. The EAC guidelines define a “valid vote” as being “from a ballot or ballot image that is legally acceptable according to state law.” In Wyoming, a “ballot” is defined as “the cardboard, paper or other material upon which a voter marks his votes.” While the Wyoming definition of “electronic voting system” is viewed to permit recording, tabulating, and counting of non-physical votes, the definition for a “voting device” is constrained to those devices or methods that record votes on ballots, as defined above. Therefore, while there is legal validity to the proposed blockchain-enabled system, clarifications should be made to include votes cast explicitly on a digital ballot from a blockchain-enabled system.
Despite the certification process under the EAC, Wyoming has spent considerable effort chasing down errors and bugs in their voting system. In 2020, Wyoming received a significant sum of funding from the HAVA Grant Program to “improve the administration of elections for Federal office . . .” and nearly a third of the allocated funds were directed at identifying cyber vulnerabilities within the State’s system. Half of the grant was set aside for improving the voter registration system, specifically citing data encryption and secure functionality—both aspects of the system that a blockchain-enabled system would not only improve, but definitively solve. Despite these funds and the goal of improving voter registration, no online registration system has been made.
Currently, Wyoming utilizes paper ballots and automatic tabulating equipment that provides a paper record. However, based on a lack of post-election audits, among other factors, the State received a “C” grade from the Center for American Progress. Specifically, the procedure was found to have left the State open to undetected hacking and other errors on election day. As for auditability, while all ballots are accounted for at the precinct level, counties are not required to compare and reconcile precinct totals with countywide composite results. Blockchains are not only “hack proof” when properly designed, they could be programmed to automatically perform functions like audits or population checks. Regardless of one’s views on auditing, the lack of it creates distrust in the electoral process.
To make matters worse, Wyoming uses voting hardware and software from ES&S, the company that provides over 60% of the voting systems throughout the country. ES&S thus arguably serves as a centralized point of failure, the elimination of which is one of the most apparent benefits of a blockchain-enabled system. The decentralized nature of blockchain technology improves the security of the system by precluding any centralized decision-making or collusion. A centralized privately managed system also creates the perception of corruption or manipulation, harming social trust in elections. Collectively, these inefficiencies or security flaws, coupled with Wyoming’s in-state expertise on blockchain, demonstrate that it is a perfect jurisdiction to experiment with blockchain-enabled voting systems, which very well could lead to greater social trust and decreased cost, as well as more secure elections. While the majority of constituents may need time to trust or understand the technology, the same can be said for the current electoral process which not only relies on centralized computerized systems, but also fallible partisan actors to secure elections and determine results. The simple fact of the matter is that nobody in the history of this country has ever been able to verify for themselves that their vote was cast and counted as they intended. With a blockchain based solution, the immediate ability to self-verify, correct, and immortalize a vote will be so apparent that trust will inevitably follow. Each voter, from their cell phone, can see their entire electoral history as well as the pseudonymous votes cast by the entire electorate. Additionally, there will be zero information asymmetries such that no partisan actor can claim superior knowledge or access to data than the public, thereby reducing the partisan incentive to cast doubt on election results.