If you’ve ever found it strange that modern society managed to figure out how to use the internet to facilitate the sale of millions of dollars worth of GIFs but still can’t seem to implement secure online voting, then you’re not alone. The United States Postal Service, which isn’t normally known for its future-forward approach to technology, reportedly tried to pursue a blockchain-based mobile voting system prior to the 2020 election according to The Washington Post.
Though specific details around the now-defunct project are scarce, the USPS provided a basic vision of what a blockchain-based voting system could look like in this August 2020 patent. If implemented, the voting would have occurred anonymously via a mobile app with each vote recorded in multiple digital locations at the same time.
In a statement to Gizmodo, A USPS spokesperson said the system the patent was based on was “exploratory” in nature and was abandoned in 2019. “Blockchain technology’s potential to strengthen digital transaction security is a concept we have explored on our journey to better meet our customers’ current and future needs, and to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds,” the spokesperson said. “But we don’t have plans to advance this system.”
USPS’s idea reportedly diverged from other U.S. federal agencies who were also working on election security measures following the fallout of the 2016 election, though they were focused mostly on tried and true paper ballots. The system didn’t make it far though after researchers from the University of Colorado at Colorado Spring reportedly found numerous potential vulnerabilities when they used it during a mock election.
Not mincing words, one of those researchers told the Post they believed the blockchain system actually caused more problems than it solved.
Election security experts have for years warned against the impulse to implement internet-based voting systems for fears they could pose a vector for malicious attacks, or potentially decrease trust and transparency around the election system. That last concern rings especially true when millions of U.S. voters say they don’t believe the results of the 2020 presidential election.
According to a January Morning Consult survey, less than 35% of GOP voters said they trusted U.S. elections. Part of this distrust was likely amplified by the pandemic-induced rise in mail-in votes. A sharper pivot to online voting risks heightening distrust even further. Other groups still, like NYU’s Brennan Centre for Justice have expressed concerns that funds for online voting measures would chip away at those needed to bolster field-tested voting systems.
“The Brennan Centre has recommended that Congress allocate $US4 ($6) billion to help state and local governments implement the necessary upgrades just to protect voters from both the coronavirus and cyberattacks this year,” Lawrence Norden, The Brennan Centre’s Director of the Election Reform Program said. “That’s where all available resources need to go.”
This isn’t entirely uncharted territory in practice. Alaska, Washington DC, and the Department of Defence have all tested out limited pilot versions of remote voting systems in the past but abandoned those after experts cited potential security lapses. Meanwhile, last year The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, FBI, and several other federal agencies released an assessment citing high risk associated with online or mobile voting technologies.
“Securing the return of voted ballots via the internet while ensuring ballot integrity and maintaining voter privacy is difficult, if not impossible, at this time,” the agencies determined. “If election officials choose or are mandated by state law to employ this high-risk process, its use should be limited to voters who have no other means to return their ballot and have it counted.”
All these concerns haven’t stopped some states from trying their hand at online voting nonetheless. During the pandemic, mobile voting systems were used in limited cases in West Virginia, Delaware, and New Jersey, however, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found multiple vulnerabilities in the systems and claimed they posed “a severe risk to election security.”