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.
We would like to thank:
- 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.
- Taha Ali for reviewing the report.
- Nadika Nadja for helping with the structuring.
- Zainab Bawa for overall editing and encouragement.
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).
Anish TP illustrated the report.
PTI. E-voting to become reality soon? EC working with IIT-M on Blockchain Technology. https://www.livemint.com/elections/assembly-elections/evoting-to-become-realitysoon-ec-working-with-iit-m-on-blockchain-technology-11616755074358.html, 2021a. [Online March 26, 2021]. ↩
India’s electoral democracy: How EVMs curb electoral fraud https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2019/04/05/indias-electoral-democracy-how-evms-curb-electoral-fraud/ ↩
One Vote Report Chapter 4 : Conclusions
The ever-increasing presence of ‘apps’ and growth in the number of participants in the mobile software application ecosystems have created a perception of “there is an app for that”. Smart mobile devices connected to high speed data networks have resulted in ease of transacting a subset of everyday activities. There are various classes of transactions where the convenience is complemented with efficiency and reliability. We believe that such personal conclusions do not naturally lend themselves to the question of “can we then use an app to vote using the internet?” Our position is that while this might seem very convenient, such inferences are misplaced and need better examination prior to be widely available.
While we do not want to examine deeply the topic of integrity of elections, this interim report is intended to emphasize that security of the entire process is a necessary component which needs to be balanced with the desirable property of convenience. And that while there are a limited set of online voting applications and services which exist, the need to examine and report on the failure tolerance of such systems as well as reliability is important as they become part of public service software. With the increase in stakes attached to results of political contests, software dependent systems will be subject to increasingly complex and serious attacks which are likely to become more difficult to detect.
At a simple level, elections are contests within a democracy. As with any contest, if the rules of the game are modified or changed then it is necessary for all participants to be able to comprehend the new rules such that they leave no room for doubt. The direct experience of all citizens at the ballot box is a major contributing factor to whether the people are able to quickly and fully grasp any flaws in the process.1 Thus, we provide a set of critical contexts in the form of checkpoints through which to evaluate any introduction of technology into existing processes such as elections, and thereafter to determine how citizens can collaborate and participate in public debates.
Our conclusion is that without these foundational aspects being put in place prior to the introduction of new technological innovations, elections are likely to be insecure, attacked and the electorate will gradually lose trust in the process, and thus electoral democracy itself.