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SPECIAL REPORT: Digital democracy the way forward?

Apr 16. 2018
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Experts believe blockchain technology can end election fraud and save money

BLOCKCHAIN and other digital-age technologies, which have played a vital role in the economy and people’s lives, are now bringing new benefits to politics and the electoral process.

Tech gurus and academics are urging authorities to use the blockchain technology, best known as the software underlying bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, in managing the voting system for greater participation and usherin in a new era of “digital democracy”.

Voting has been identified as one of the 10 major activities and sectors that blockchain will permanently disrupt.

Gurus suggest the voting system currently used for various elections makes “little sense in our mobile, connected society”, while applying blockchain technology has the potential to eliminate voter fraud, provide a clearer record of the votes cast and prevent rigged elections.

Connecting the technology with politics would help raise awareness of election issues and the election itself, said Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political science lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.

Instead of travelling to a polling station, blockchain would allow voters to cast their votes via websites or mobile applications, he added.

The technology “will help promote ‘digital democracy’ or ‘tele-democracy’,” said Yuttaporn. Blockchain has become an acceptable technology in many countries and its adoption has become a global trend that Thailand could not afford to miss, he said.

Blockchain enthusiast Arnat Leemakdej, a professor at Thammasat Business School, said the technology could help prevent election fraud.

“Offering such a convenient way [to cast their votes], is likely to increase voter turnout. Perpetrating an election fraud would cost a huge amount of money because of the large number of voters,” he said.

“We can make sure that those who are voting are who they claim to be and are legally allowed to vote,” he added.

The technology could help create transparency, Arnat said, and blockchain’s audit trail would keep track of votes while allowing anyone to verify that no votes were tampered with. Authentication could be done by one-time verification, with voters’ identities stored in the system via encrypted passwords.

He singled out a blockchain-based network called “Ethereum”, a public and open-source distributed computing platform, which provides a solution to storing and processing cast votes.

“It is very difficult to hack the result, because you would have to hack more than 50 per cent of one million computers to change the results,” he added.

It would save money, too. Government could pay a service fee of around Bt15 per voter to the platform, Arnat said. That compares favourably with the last elections that cost around Bt2.8 billion and saw a turnout of around 35 million voters. 

"Ballotchain" demo

Recently, about 500 people participated in a blockchain demonstration involving the election of a committee to improve the standards of sports coaches and referees in sports under the Department of Physical Education.

Arnat, who is an electronic-voting adviser to the department, used the Ethereum platform for the experiment, via the website Candidates were able to apply on the site, whose administrators approved candidate registrations, and voters cast their ballot there as well. 

The trial found that those familiar with using online or mobile banking services had no difficulties with the vote, as it used the same approach: participants first registered and then received a confirmation with an OTP number sent to their mobile phone to verify their identity. The voters then logged on using the ID and password (which the user must remember) and cast their votes. However, the demonstration faced some technical problems, including the loss of an Internet signal, along with features some users found unfriendly or complicated.

Wimol Chobchuenchom, director of the Internal Audit Department at Rangsit University who was among the 500 attendees, said the method was convenient for voters. She also trusted the process that verified IDs. Wimol saw transparency as a major benefit, because the results can be rechecked with the system.

A bill concerning the sport committee is being considered by the National Legislative Assembly. If approved, an election for the committee will involve more than 200,000 representatives of sport associations nationwide.

The technology is already being used in Estonia, the country dubbed “The Digital Republic”, for shareholder voting.

The state of West Virginia will become the first in the US to offer blockchain-based mobile voting in a federal election, when deployed military personnel from two counties vote in the upcoming Senate primary election. 

How about Thailand?

While some people are pushing for modernising all elections using the “ballotchain”, the most cutting-edge technology Thai voters could expect to soon experience is e-voting. 

The Election Commission [EC] is planning to provide smartcard readers for use in advance voting for the next election at polling booths in all 350 consistencies.

“Voters would insert their smart ID cards in the machine to cast their votes. Then the vote will be sent to the EC’s registration centre to record that they have already voted,” said the EC caretaker secretary-general, Pol Colonel Jarungwit Phumma. “This will help prevent repetition of votes, or fraudulent voting under another person’s name.”

The EC, which is in charge of organising the election, is concerned about loss of Internet signal that could |disrupt the e-voting process. Yuttaporn, who is an expert on political technology, believes it is possible that we would see blockchain used in an election within the next five years. 

“We should not be worried about whether we are ready or not. I don’t see anyone needing instructions on how to use the Line communication app,” Yuttaporn said. He thinks implementation could start with a local election or an election for a political party’s executive board.

As Thailand prepares for the next general election expected by February next year, the 2017 Constitution requires that parties hold a primary vote to select MP candidates. The EC decided to make the political parties responsible for the selection, and Arnat suggested that political parties employ the technology.

But there are two sides to the coin. Yuttaporn is concerned about the potential harm if a system could be hacked or otherwise has weak security. Thailand still has a digital divide and some people don’t understand the new technology, Yuttaporn conceded. But, he said, people could be educated and the technology could be explained.

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