Posted on August 30, 2020
Authored by Ritwick Shrivastav*
India is the world’s largest democracy with over 900 million eligible voters. Every few months, a part of the country goes into ‘election mode’. Politicians begin their campaign; public servants assume election duties; and security forces get mobilised across regions. Managing all this is the responsibility of the Election Commission (“EC”). Every five years, the EC faces the challenge of organising the Indian general elections. These elections are the most expensive and time-consuming democratic exercise in the world. The 2019 general election, costed over $7 billion and took 5-6 weeks to complete. The EC had to set up over 1.035 million polling booths to ensure convenient access for all voters. However, despite such a strenuous exercise, over 300 million eligible voters did not vote. The number of these ‘lost votes’ is equivalent to the population of the United States of America. For a participatory democracy like ours, such numbers are abysmal.
Addressing the issue of low polling numbers, the EC admitted that many eligible voters could not vote because of being far from their registered voting district. This means that several million interested voters could not vote because of being physically absent from their voting district. In a country with over 450 million migrants, not having a remote voting mechanism is akin to taking away the ‘Right to Vote’. In the light of these events, it becomes imperative for the Indian democracy to evaluate its existing voting systems and device an efficient method to enable remote voting. Democracies around the globe are reinventing their election models. There is an increasing shift towards digital elections. To ensure safety and privacy in these elections, countries have resorted to blockchain technology.
In this article, the author will discuss how India can also use blockchain technology to enable ‘Vote from home’ elections. The author will also discuss how the EC can easily adopt this technology without significant changes to the existing infrastructure. Finally, the author will discuss the different voting mechanisms adopted by countries in their (blockchain based) election system.
Understanding Blockchain and EC’s New Model
A blockchain is a decentralised distributed ledger which is transparent, reliable and nearly impossible to hack. It is the technology that underpins Bitcoin. While the jury is still out on the legality of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, blockchain is considered to be the next ground-breaking innovation that could transform governance. Therefore, is it not surprising that the EC has already collaborated with Indian Institute of Technology, Madras to develop a blockchain based system for remote voting. The EC intends to make use of the Aadhaar infrastructure to develop this blockchain model. Considering the common hacks and leaks that malign Aadhaar’s image, this arrangement would surely fail any judicial scrutiny. Notably, this is not the first attempt to link the Aadhaar database with Voter IDs. In 2015, the EC was able to link the cards of over 380 million voters under the National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (“NERPAP”). However, due to concerns regarding data privacy, the project was put on hold and has been in cold storage since. In order to see the light of day, this new model needs to first address all data privacy concerns associated with the Aadhaar System. The answer again lies with blockchain technology.
Protecting Aadhaar Database with Blockchain
Aadhaar is the world’s largest biometric ID system. Naturally, it’s a honey-pot for hackers and extortionists. Over the past few years, Aadhaar system has experienced several hacks and leaks. In 2017, Aadhaar numbers and personal information of over 135 million Indians was leaked online. It is therefore not surprising that technology and policy experts have time and again demanded the use of blockchain technology to protect the Aadhaar database. A blockchain-based Aadhaar ecosystem would also help Unique Identification Authority of India (“UIDAI”) to comply with the data protection and privacy stipulations outlined in the right to privacy judgment. It would allow information to be collected, held and utilized transparently with the consent of the individual. However, given the immensity of the data and required bandwidth, it will be difficult to transfer the entire database onto a blockchain. It will also be financially unviable because of the high infrastructure and operation costs. A better way will be to utilise the existing Aadhaar infrastructure. In a paper titled “Blockchain based Aadhaar Security”, the authors suggest installing a layer of blockchain protection over the existing Aadhaar database. They suggest that blocks with original data should have a pointer assigned to them in the central database. The encrypted stored pointer can be decrypted to see the original data node. By this method, the bandwidth required for implementation will be very less as the existing Aadhaar infrastructure would be utilised. This system will protect Aadhaar against hacks and will ensure Aadhaar holders of anonymity and privacy.
Once the Aadhaar system is protected with blockchain, the linking of Voter IDs can take place without apprehensions. The linking will enable the EC to verify the voters through Aadhar’s authentication systems and solve identity duplication problems. It will also enable the EC to use biometrics to verify voter identity at the time of polling. However, mere linking of the two IDs will not be enough to enable a vote from home election. The EC will have to develop a blockchain of its own.
Election Commission’s Voting Process
The EC has already partnered with IIT Madras to design its blockchain. The project is currently in the research and development stage with the aim of developing a prototype in the coming year. The EC intends to have a two-way electronic voting system, in a controlled environment, on white-listed IP devices on dedicated internet lines. The two-way blockchain remote voting process would involve voter identification and authorisation using a multi-layered IT enabled system working on EC’s Electoral Registration Officer Network (“ERO Net”) using biometrics and web cameras. After a voter’s identity is established by the system, a blockchain-enabled personalised e-ballot paper (Smart Contract) will be generated. When the vote is cast (Smart Contract executed), the ballot would be securely encrypted and a blockchain hashtag (#) will be generated. This process will enable remote voting but voters will have to reach a designated venue during a pre-decided period of time to be able to use this facility. This system will only increase the burden on EC during elections. Instead of setting up polling stations with Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), the EC will now have to set up sophisticated computer systems with high speed internet connections. The EC will also have to acquire new computers, cameras and modems which will burden the exchequer even further.
The need of the hour is to have an “anytime-anywhere-any device” voting system. Several countries in the world have developed systems for such ‘vote from home’ elections. While no system can be adopted as is in India, there are a few International systems we could learn from:
- Estonia: Estonia is a Baltic nation of roughly 1.3 million people. Its system of voting is widely regarded as an ideal model for online voting. The eligible voters get a ‘vote token’ on their IDs and they can send the token to the candidate they vote for. The National Electoral Commission of Estonia counts the vote on their blockchain and the result is declared. The identity of the voter remains anonymous. The elections are inexpensive, fast and safe.
- Russia: Russia has been giving blockchain technology a big push. The Moscow City Election Commission and Moscow Department of Information Technology (DIT) launched a blockchain based electronic voting system in June 2019. The system was used alongside regular voting systems. After the successful experiment, Russia has decided to roll out blockchain based voting on a national level for the 2021 Presidential elections.
- Sierra Leone: In March 2018, Sierra Leone became the first country to conduct an entire election over blockchain. It conducted its election with the help of a blockchain voting company named Agora. Anonymised votes/ballots were recorded on Agora’s blockchain which was publicly available for any interested party to review.
India can adopt all or some features from these countries to develop its own voting system. Considering the magnitude of voters, it seems unimaginable to conduct an entire general election over blockchain. The EC’s system will have to be tried, tested and scaled before it can be rolled out. Since the technology is new, EC will also have to heavily advertise the voting process. We may also face malfunctions and cyber-attacks. However, every country faces these initial challenges. In fact, in case of the abovementioned Moscow elections, the blockchain voting system malfunctioned soon after going live causing confusion among the voters.  There were also multiple failed attempts to hack into the system. It is therefore suggested that the EC starts on a small scale. Experimental exercises in association with universities and colleges can be arranged. Student elections such as Delhi University Student Union elections (where the voters are well read and can provide useful feedback) can be organised over blockchain. The EC can also use blockchain together with traditional voting to conduct a Bye-Election. Voting can be conducted in a phased manner to ease pressure on the blockchain. Even if we start with a hit and trial, we must start soon.
It is inevitable for the world to move towards digital elections. A suitable legal system has also been set into place. The Government has also acknowledged and allowed One Way Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS). This system enables personnel belonging to the armed forces, CRPF etc. to fill up the ballot papers and post them back electronically. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the ETPBS system helped such service voters to participate overwhelmingly in the polls, with the turnout of almost 62 per cent as compared to single digits in earlier elections. A bill to allow proxy voting for overseas Indians was also introduced in the Parliament but lapsed following the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented another reason to speed this process. Countries like Hong Kong and New Zealand have already postponed their parliamentary elections citing rise in coronavirus infections. In India, the demands for postponing the 2020 Bihar Assembly Elections are also gaining momentum. As of date, the blockchain technology is the best available technology that can provide end-to-end verifiable and transparent remote voting solution. A vote from home election is now a necessity.
Never let a good crisis go to waste– Winston Churchill
*Ritwick Shrivastav is a practicing lawyer and a Public Policy analyst. He also works with Members of Parliament to assist them in legislative drafting and policy formation.
 Working on tech solution for ‘lost votes’, says CEC, Times of India, February 13, 2020.
 Blockchain solution for lost votes: EC working with IIT Chennai, Moneycontrol news, February 13, 2020.
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 Aadhaar Numbers and Personal Details of 135 Million Indians May Have Leaked, Says CIS Report, Outlook India, May 3, 2017.
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 Sankaranarayanan P.J and Geogen George, supra, 6.
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