Technology, Trust and Elections

Technology, Trust and Elections

An interim report from the One Vote Project

Project Overview

Media reports1,2 about the prototyping of blockchain based technologies for elections in India provide a unique opportunity to examine and discuss technology interventions. Elections in India have not yet been heavily dependent on technological systems. It took four years3 to transition from paper-based systems to Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and twelve years thereafter to EVMs with Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT). This interim report is an outcome of discussions, webinars and conversations stimulated by One Vote Project.

One Vote project was initiated to explore the introduction of technology in electoral processes. ElectionTech and was initially hosted by the Kaarana collective. With the extensive set of conversations and discussions, it was evident that the project needed to be a defined with a space and forum of its own. The project is supported by Hasgeek

The current report is a summary of the conversations that have taken place - via master classes - since May 2021. We have also included some forward looking statements which provide further opportunity to investigate issues arising around the topic of technology in elections.

Elections in India are often described as the ‘dance of democracy’4 and the media gaze is relentless on the days of the polls. This has led to a situation wherein the following statements often ring true;

  • The awareness about polling and related ceremonies is high, but the knowledge about elections is low. This dissonance is particularly visible in the keen knowledge of electoral rolls but not of the process which records legitimate votes as cast and available for tallying. This warrants public outreach about the technological aspect of elections.
  • Explainability of technology is an important safeguard.This does not entail that the intended consumers of the technology must understand its workings in deep detail, but that it must be possible to communicate in a reasonably simple manner, the aspects of the rationale, the fairness, the safety and performance issues around the technology. This form of meaningful transparency is the key to building trust.
  • Identity, identifiers and voting rights are intimately related. This is especially so when the presence or absence of one’s name from the electoral rolls is based on contentious rules and decisions. The electorate is often keenly conscious of the significance of being ‘othered’ or ‘marginalized’ and hence is engaged in establishing a verifiable and immutable record on the rolls.
  • Political parties, civil society activists and technologists have a responsibility to act now in order to create a broadly understood framework around responsible technology that can be used in public services.

Blockchains are a type of type of technology implementation which belong to a class of software designs more accurately described as Distributed Ledger Technology (DLTs). Since 2018 there has been a growth in the interest and hype5 around DLTs and especially blockchain. It has often been proposed as a solution to an ever expanding array of problem domains6. Blockchain evangelists have been known to propose blockchain for all sorts of issues7 which come up e.g. financial technology (FinTech); provisioning persistent digital identification systems for refugees; complex problems in supply chains and in general any business transaction which needs to be disintermediated.

The over promotion of the technology has resulted in a situation where a perverse motivation stemming from the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) leads to the absence of any reasonable assessment around the sufficiency offered by existing technologies and software architecture. There are situations wherein the specific advantages of blockchain technology or DLT are not evaluated with respect to the desired outcomes.

This report highlights some of the key aspects which are important to consider when engaging in any discussion around the introduction of novel and emerging technology design for large-scale publicly available services:

  • Awareness around blockchain and app-based voting exists but knowledge about the same is scarce. This is specifically significant in context of understanding the constraints and limitations imposed by such a choice. There is thus a need for better consultation around the pilot projects being undertaken and the plans being made for future deployments.
  • Commitment to a deliberative process as part of public decision making is necessary to establish better understanding of the proposed changes in terms of benefits and societal impact. This is likely to lead to meaningful transparency among the stakeholders and participants in such design approaches
  • The adoption of approaches such as the Gunning Principles of Consultation8 are likely to address the absence of lack of access to complex and contextual information which results in being unable to complete a scientific evaluation of the proposal.
  • Governments as well as private organizations contracted by the state must begin to include a societal impact review of Public Interest Software such as voting technologies. A better understanding of the readiness and completeness of such software is required prior to placing the trust of the citizens and voters on such digital workflows.

The interim report from One Vote is not designed to be a formal record of proceedings. Rather, it is an opportunity for the reader, and especially the lay reader, to familiarize themselves with the key issues discussed so far. Additionally, it attempts to put together the initial aspects of a model - a pattern - which can be used to examine the introduction and intervention of technology in the domain of public interactions.

While the sections, which are presented as individual chapters, can be read independently, we recommend that you read this report as you have received it - in sequence. Each section is a separate submission, but we have ordered it according to how we would like you to read it. The text of this report is written to provide a narrative sequence which explores the history of the electoral process in India and builds up a framework through which to evaluate the risks of technology interventions bereft due process of accountability and transparency.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank:

  1. Ornit Shani, Nanjala Nyabola, Tarangini Sriraman, Subhashis Banerjee, Srinivas Kodali and Srikanth Lakshmanan for conducting masterclasses. A substantial part of our understanding around this topic came from their sessions, and the papers published by Ronald Rivest, Nic Cheeseman and Ben Adida.
  2. Taha Ali for reviewing the report.
  3. Nadika Nadja for helping with the structuring.
  4. Zainab Bawa for overall editing and encouragement.

Authors

Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay works on digital identifier technologies and examining how digital public services are introduced for citizens.

Chantal D’Costa is Research Assistant at the One Vote project. She is a Humanities undergrad at Azim Premji University (APU).

Support Team

Anish TP illustrated the report.

Chapter 1 : Critical Questions
Chapter 2: Technology Check point
Chapter 3: Future Risks
Chapter 4: Conclusions
Annexure
Additional Reading

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One Vote is an initiative to examine a diverse set of inputs and perspectives regarding the introduction and evolution of technology as part of the elections. We use public discourse, deliberations and reports to raise awareness about this topic for a lay audience. One Vote is designed to enable cr… more
Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay

Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay

@sankarshan

CHANTAL JANINE D'COSTA

CHANTAL JANINE D'COSTA

@chants

One Vote Report Chapter 1 : Critical Questions

Submitted Nov 17, 2021

Critical Questions

In recent times the proliferation of mobile application (app) ecosystems have influenced a stream of opinion pieces supporting the notion of ‘app based voting’. Often, terms such as ‘internet voting’, ‘mobile voting’ or ‘blockchain voting’ are also used. While they are not exactly used as synonyms, they do indicate the set of systems designed to enable remote voting over the internet with electronic-only recording of votes.

The interest in such online and blockchain voting proposals are rooted in the objective of modernising those systems which are presumed to have inefficiencies1. The bright heat of political support behind such proposals tends to fast-track them without sufficient time being allocated for consultation and evaluation from experts including especially those who are proficient in security. And thus, any enthusiasm in conflating everyday online experiences with an online election should be critically examined from the point of view of tolerance to failures and more importantly, the cost of the failure- should it go unchecked. Elections are a key aspect of the democratic process and any haste can undermine the process leading to long term consequences for the nation2.

There is a growing need to raise awareness among the lay audience - the citizens - the voters about the process of elections and the specific aspects to consider. Far too often the ritual of casting the ballot is considered to be the overriding part of elections in a democracy. This takes away attention from other equally significant aspects of the polling process. As it states - elections are a process with a very uniquely designed set of checks and balances; auditable sequence of steps and with the aim of providing a high level of trust to both the contestants and the voters. At the end of a contest, with the publication of the results, there needs to be good understanding among the stakeholders and participants about the integrity of the process itself.

This interim report does not provide sufficient space or opportunity to extensively examine all the critical questions. Nor does it desire to produce a checklist which can be utilised to self-attest any electoral system with attributes of completeness. These questions are drawn from existing examples of failures in various, specifically internet voting schemes.

  1. Availability of stakeholder mapping for the electoral process- it is necessary to acquire a complete understanding of the stakeholders in an election. Such activity would include gaining sufficient knowledge about the roles, scope and powers of each of the stakeholders. This helps bring about some degree of understanding of the resilient nature of the system against adversarial attacks from malicious actors and whether the outcome of the election can be controlled by them.
  2. Completion of threat modeling and evaluation- this is a reasonably expert topic and is likely to be undertaken by professionals who have experience around designing threat models for processes. The desired outcome is to determine the assumptions made in the design of the process and the system and evaluate the efficacy of the various paths in which it can be compromised.
  3. Assessment of security in systems design - the threat modeling exercise naturally leads to the evaluation of the security features included in the system design and whether the mechanisms are able to prevent violations in security, resistant to coercion but more importantly whether they can detect and report a violation in security. The intended objective is to enable voters and observers to verify that the system is functioning as designed and that the outcomes are resistant to adversarial attacks.

It is important to highlight the principle of ‘evidence based elections’ which is intrinsically coupled with the attribute of transparency. A complete set of evidence enables the public to undertake an examination of the system and arrive at the conclusion based on trust in the system thereby imparting legitimacy to the contest. Evidence based elections make it possible to ensure that “election officials should not only find the true winner(s) of an election, but … also provide the electorate with convincing evidence that they did”3

These 3 aspects along with auditability of elections provides the general reader with a framework within which to examine any current or future processes around election. These are necessary to acquire a working understanding of the electoral process and provide a valuable starting point to demand a reasonable level of transparency in the processes. In the next section we attempt to provide an additional set of aspects which can be utilised to examine any proposal which introduces new technology or enhances the existing technology choices often with vaguely defined outcomes and gains.


  1. Zeynep Tufekci. Online Voting Seems like a Great Idea - Until You Look Closer. Scientific American, 2019. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/online-voting-seems-like-a-greatidea-until-you-look-closer/?redirect=1 [Online June 1, 2019]. 

  2. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2018. ISBN 978-0-309-47647-8. doi: 10.17226/25120. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25120/securing-the-vote-protectingamerican-democracy

  3. Sunoo Park, Michael Specter, Neha Narula, and Ronald L Rivest. Going from bad to worse: from Internet voting to blockchain voting. Journal of Cybersecurity, 7(1), 02 2021. ISSN 2057-2085. doi: 10.1093/cybsec/tyaa025. https://academic.oup.com/cybersecurity/article-pdf/7/1/ tyaa025/36276521/tyaa025.pdf 

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Hosted by

One Vote is an initiative to examine a diverse set of inputs and perspectives regarding the introduction and evolution of technology as part of the elections. We use public discourse, deliberations and reports to raise awareness about this topic for a lay audience. One Vote is designed to enable cr… more