Blockchain is quite a hot topic at the moment, and part of the reason for that is the fact that it has the potential to change the way we do almost everything, from how we buy and sell property to how we democratically elect the leaders of our countries.
To understand why that is, we should take a step backwards and understand exactly what blockchain actually is. Many people have only heard of the term because it's the underlying technology which powers bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but the technology has many more potential uses than that.
In fact, a blockchain is effectively an incorruptible digital ledger which is shared between peers like a bit torrent so that multiple copies are always running at any time. Any transactions on the blockchain need to be verified by all users, making it effectively impossible to compromise the database in a traditional hack.
Blockchain for voting
As you can probably imagine, then, blockchain has the potential to completely revolutionize the way that we vote. For example, it could lead to the creation of a truly secure system that could automatically create accounts for all voters and allow them to vote through a platform of their choice. If they still wanted to go into a polling station, they could do so. But they could also use a government-approved website or smartphone that would access and record data through the blockchain.
One of the biggest advantages of blockchain is that it's a decentralized system. That's good news when it comes to democracy because the more transparency there is, the better. It's also much more secure than many alternatives such as paper-based systems or other digital options. In fact, it's secure by design. It had to be - after all, it needed to be able to securely power bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
This combination of security, transparency and decentralization is exactly why blockchain technology is so disruptive. For example, it could be used in the real estate industry to create digital records for every property to track ownership, maintenance records and other information about every house in the country. That would force both buyers and sellers (as well as landlords and tenants) to be totally truthful and transparent with every transaction. You can probably see how something similar could be beneficial when it comes to international politics.
Blockchain in Sierra Leone
Now, you might be thinking that some of the topics that we've discussed sound far-fetched, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, a 2018 election in Sierra Leone relied heavily on blockchain, with 70% of votes being stored and verified with the blockchain. It's likely to be the first of its kind, especially at such a large scale.
What's interesting about this is that blockchain could actually reduce the amount of corruption within the system whilst simultaneously enabling the results to be accessed in real-time. There'd be no need for lengthy counting and recounting processes. The data would be there for everyone to see. Pretty much any relevant party could "review, count and validate" the data, ultimately allowing citizens to hold their governments to more accountability than ever before.
The result of this is a bizarre situation in which using blockchain for voting could be a rare example of technology being used to bring us closer together, increasing our trust in the systems that run our countries. It even cuts down on the environmental impact of voting because there's no need for printed voting ballots or extensive infrastructure to support the voting process. Sure, the Sierra Leone election was a proof of concept and it didn't capture every single vote, but it did show that blockchain-based systems could be an attractive choice for the elections of the future.
The benefits of blockchain
I'm not going to get technical and start digging into exactly how blockchain systems work because most of us don't really need to know that. After all, Uber is basically just a bunch of different APIs being pulled together to allow you to do something, which in this case is to get a ride. We could well end up using blockchain-based systems without us actually knowing it.
More tangible are the actual benefits that the technology has to offer. Used correctly, it could virtually eliminate voter fraud by making sure that everyone is who they say they are - and that they do in fact have the right to vote in the first place. It can also make voting easier and more accessible, as was the case back in 2016 when tech non-profit Democracy Earth Foundation used blockchain technology to allow Columbian expats to vote in a plebiscite on whether or not to approve a peace treaty.
Speaking about the 2016 vote, OECD policy analyst Charlotte van Ooijen explained, "This process has raised interesting questions for governments about the future use of blockchain in electoral processes, and in the public sector more broadly, and could potentially lead to new ways to ensure the integrity and inclusiveness of the election process."
There's a reason why TechRadar included voting as one of their "ten sectors that blockchain will disrupt forever". In many ways, it's the perfect technology to address many of the issues that make the current voting system so inefficient in the first place. If blockchain hadn't been invented for cryptocurrencies, it would probably have been invented anyway to make voting more democratic in today's technology-driven society.
Perhaps the most telling quote of all comes to us from American venture capitalist Adam Draper, who said, "The blockchain does one thing: It replaces third-party trust with mathematical proof that something happened." And when it comes to counting and processing votes, I'm pretty sure we'd all prefer mathematical proof than to take something on trust.
By now, you should have a good idea as to why blockchain technology has the potential to change the way that we vote for the better. The only real question is when blockchain-based voting will become the new norm instead of just an exception. It can only be a matter of time.