Blockchain and Arguments For and Against Its Adoption in Election Systems; The United States' Shift in Electoral Infrastructure in the Wake of the 2000 Election

Spelsberg, Samuel, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
JACQUES, RICHARD, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Floryan, Mark, EN-Comp Science Dept, University of Virginia

I selected these topics to cover through my STS portfolio because of their relevance to current events, their outsized impact on our democracy, and because of the importance of well researched information covering them to inform participants in our democracy. The projects are well linked as the STS paper traces the evolution of our electoral infrastructure following the earth-shaking post-election chaos of the 2000 election, bringing us through the election hacking in 2016, and up to present day. The paper uses this history to lay out sociotechnical lessons learned about implementing large scale reform in an area containing such an incredibly complex network of actants such as our election infrastructure. The technical paper then looks toward a possible future of electoral infrastructure, one powered by electronic voting utilizing blockchain technology, and it evaluates the possible benefits, or shortcomings, of blockchain voting. The STS paper, detailing lessons gleaned from failures in new system evaluation and implementation, provides a backdrop for our evaluation of another new election technology. Read in order they follow chronologically as well as conceptually: the STS paper contextualizing how we are to approach adoption of a new technology in our election systems, and the technical paper expanding upon possible tradeoffs of blockchain adoption.

Paper Summaries
STS Research Paper – In my STS research I bring to light how the 2000 election sent America into a tailspin with concerns over the integrity of our elections, and resulted in politically motivated decisions pushing forward the implementation of insecure electronic voting machines called DREs. In 2002 Bush signed the Help America Vote Act, granting funding for new electronic voting machines, and resulting in congress(wo)men pushing the states to move quickly to utilize the funding. Insecure Direct-Recording Electronic voting machines (DREs) were purchased in droves and rolled out without much testing or evaluation. For decades we felt the consequences of this rushed decision making, meeting incremental failure followed by incremental change repeatedly, until the 2016 election once again shook our faith in our election infrastructure. 2020, as detailed by top intelligence experts, was the most secure election in American history, but it was a long and windy road to get here, one fraught with sociotechnical lessons to be learned and applied in the future. My paper explains some of the lessons I derived from this exercise in analysis of the evolution of a complex sociotechnical system, detailing them with the hope that our knowledge of past failures will help us move forward more effectively.
Technical Research Paper – In this research paper I first provide a technical overview of blockchain to help the reader understand what it can bring to the table for an election system, as well as what possible complications exist in its implementation. Blockchain is a fully distributed collection of records, linked with each other, strongly resistant to alteration, and protected using cryptography. Possible benefits of its use include: nearly instantaneous election results, reduction of human error, increased transparency and uncertainty, more simple and fluid voting, increased accessibility based off of one’s own internet enabled smart device, and a decrease in cost compared to traditional elections. Possible complications or disadvantages with the adoption of blockchain include: major concerns over the security of the applications that eligible voters would use to add their votes to the blockchain, a lack of understanding in blockchain technology leading to possible distrust in the results produced by perceived-to-be obscure systems, lack of access to a suitable personal device, removal or reduction of safe spaces to vote free from possible coercion, concerns over who would perform some of the key cryptographic computational work necessary to maintain a functioning blockchain, and possible vulnerability to brute force computational exploit. In my paper I go into detail about each of the aforementioned benefits or disadvantages.

I chose my paper topics far ahead of the 2020 election, but with the election playing out over the course of a week, ballot counts slowly trickling in due to the limited bandwidth of human workers, massive distrust in the results being sowed due to lack of immediate accessibility to the counting process and potential for human error, incredible voter suppression, and other complications, the topics of my papers have only gained in import. Effective electronic voting could elevate our democracy, but it is crucial that as we move forward in our exploration of new voting technology such as blockchain we remember our past and we learn from it. These papers were fun and engaging to write and I hope they provide insight into a less-thought-about component of our democracy, our election systems.

I would like to thank Prof. Mark Floryan of the UVA CS department for being so amenable to my self-directed research project delving into blockchain, as well as my parents, lifelong public servants, for raising me to be a socially conscious individual with a passion for exploring technology’s impact on the way we live our lives, and how we uphold our democratic institutions.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Blockchain, voting, election systems, cyber security , voting machines

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Computer Science
Technical Advisor: Mark Floryan
STS Advisor: Richard Jacques
Technical Team Members: Samuel Spelsberg

Issued Date: