IMHO: A vote for blockchain in local body elections

By John Mackie MInstD, Executive Council Member Blockchain New Zealand
27 Aug 2021
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4 min to read
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Democracy inaction

OPINION: Almost all public and private organisations need to give their stakeholders an opportunity to voice their ideas and opinions, and take part in decision making through voting. 

But today our voting methods are not serving us as well as they used to. Organisations that claim to represent the public are less able to act in the public’s best interest and this is likely due to lack of voting participation.

Last month, at the Local Government NZ Conference in Blenheim, there was considerable discussion around the declining turnout at local government elections. Only 41.7% of eligible voters participated in the 2019 council elections and this was due in part to the postal system used.

Paper and post are past their use-by date

The legacy voting systems we are still using have simply not kept pace with evolving technology and culture. For example, a UK census-wide study in 2017 revealed that 43% of millennials had never used the postal service to send a card, letter, or parcel.

Election integrity has also became a front-page news issue in the aftermath of the 2020 US presidential election. This included law changes to accommodate late mail-in votes, voting system failures, and there was no public oversight of the tabulation process. Public questions around fairness were not adequately addressed and this ultimately culminated in the US Capitol riots.

In August this year, a man was caught with 300 postal ballots in his possession for California’s Governor recall vote, raising further questions about election integrity using postal voting. 

Blockchain can save the ballot

In 2013, the Department of Internal Affairs established a working party which prepared a report on online voting in New Zealand and came up with four recommendations, including that trials be established in New Zealand. The report outlined some issues with online voting that were experienced elsewhere around the world, including hacking and vote fraud.

However, none of the examples referenced relied on modern blockchain technology and the security that smart contracts can provide today.

The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has indicated her desire to make online voting a reality in 2022 citing an increase in voter turnout if implemented. But online voting trials in 2016 and 2019 failed to make any progress largely due to security concerns and the high costs of system development.

In contrast, a blockchain-secured system prevents the issue of invalid votes. It will allow voters to check their vote was recorded and counted correctly or audit the entire election process. This provides unprecedented transparency and integrity of the process.

Traditionally, voting information is kept on a single server, or paper storage system, and is potentially subject to tampering or a process error without detection. By implementing a blockchain-secure system, each vote is published and secured through cryptography across a large network on the blockchain. This ensures that each vote is accounted for and the voter is the only person who knows which vote is theirs.

If someone attempted to modify any copy of the record, the network would quickly detect and reject it. This is what makes blockchains much more secure than current systems. 

A vote for blockchain

The jury is still out on the actual impact that online voting will have on New Zealand election turnout, as overseas results vary in that respect. But an important consideration is the potential to increase participation in the younger demographic who are tethered to their mobile phones. This group is often under-represented in local and national elections.

Blockchain New Zealand recently discussed opportunities with Melbourne-based blockchain digital voting venture Horizon State to deploy its technology in upcoming council elections.

The Kiwi founder and CEO Tim Goggin asserts that a blockchain voting system is perfect for government clients noting that Horizon State has already been deployed for a New Zealand government department, as well as local councils and state governments in Australia. He adds that that the blockchain voting platforms are easy to set up and rollout and could easily be in place by the 2022 local body elections.

A blockchain voting system could benefit the private sector as well. Companies need to run annual general meetings, board meetings, working groups, shareholder resolutions and employee bargaining. They need to carry these out while protecting voters’ identity and data from cybersecurity breaches and reputation risks.

Currently, many companies are not getting the engagement from their shareholders, stakeholder and customers that they could be. Limited engagement can lead to feedback loops of falling trust, customer loyalty and employee retention and ultimately affecting profitability. A voting system that uses cryptography and blockchain technology addresses these concerns. 

Proxy voting could also be dispensed with by a digital voting system potentially improving participation and reducing inconvenience to stakeholders. This is becoming increasingly important for companies to consider in the current covid-19 environment with lockdowns potentially interfering with in-person AGMs.

Full participation in a democracy

A blockchain technology voting solution puts the power into the hands of voters and provides a high level of transparency. The solution builds trust with voters, while preserving their privacy and security. There is also wide support for online voting, as indicated in a recent Auckland Council survey.

Of course, it doesn’t all need to be online. For those without electronic access, or who are unfamiliar with mobile/computer technology, kiosks at polling stations with support staff can still be retained at public libraries, churches and community centres, to enable informed participation by everyone.


John Mackie
About the author

John Mackie is Chartered Professional Engineer and Managing Director and Co-Founder at MeterMe Ltd.

On joining the Blockchain Executive Council in 2020, John adopted several passion projects including the promotion of digital education in blockchain particularly suited to executives and directors. Blockchain NZ also work with their membership to advocate for the wider adoption of the technology, in collaboration with the Government and the business community.

The views expressed in this article do not reflect the position of the IoD unless explicitly stated.

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