Bitcoin Foundation Trials Blockchain Voting in Latest Election Controversy

Pete Rizzo
Feb 25, 2015 at 23:42 UTC
Updated Feb 26, 2015 at 15:08 UTC
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VotingAs perhaps an extension of its recent focus on revitalizing its image, the Bitcoin Foundation announced yesterday it would allow its members to cast votes in its latest election round directly on the bitcoin blockchain, the digital currency’s public ledger.

Billed in a blog post as a way for the Bitcoin Foundation to advance blockchain technology by new executive director Patrick Murck, the decision was soon met with mixed reactions, with some lauding the novel step and others criticising it for a potential negative impact on an election meant to fill two outgoing board member positions.

At issue was a process described as cumbersome by candidates such as CryptoCurrency Certification Consortium’s (C4) Michael Perklin and decried as a veiled way for the organisation to prevent voter participation by entrepreneur and candidate Olivier Janssens.

Met with this feedback, the foundation pulled the plug on the blockchain-based voting system at 16:00 EST, rendering all votes cast through its new system invalid and effectively restarting the voting process.

Remarking on the experiment, Murck strived to paint the day’s events as understandable due to the varying philosophical views those in the industry have regarding the use of the bitcoin blockchain for non-financial purposes. However, he sought to paint the blockchain-based voting system as the kind of initiative that should be embraced by the trade organisation.

Murck told CoinDesk:

“I’m glad we pushed it, because somebody needed to actually do something along these lines. You need to push for innovation on the blockchain and experimentation, I think that’s something the foundation should do, especially when it comes to pushing for innovation around governance, so in that sense it’s good.”

In interviews, candidates were similarly positive about the idea of the Bitcoin Foundation pushing forward on matters of innovation, even if they expressed fears that the stop-start nature of the current election may have an impact on voters.

“It will affect the process, everything affects the process, and when you have so few votes, every vote counts,” candidate and Atlantic Financial managing director Bruce Fenton said.

Others mainly expressed optimism that a return to a prior voting system would at least allow attention to be returned to the voting process itself.

“I was unable to vote for myself, and after waiting five hours, I was still presented an error message. So, if I couldn’t even vote for myself. I’m glad they pulled the plug and went back,” Perklin added.

Blockchain voting version 1.0

Announced in the early morning hours of 25th February, the Bitcoin Foundation’s blockchain-based voting attempt was made possible through a collaboration with decentralised crowdfunding startup Swarm.

As explained by CEO Joel Dietz, the system provided each eligible voter with a hierarchical-deterministic (HD) wallet that issued users a colored coin, or denomination of bitcoin augmented to represent an asset that could then be sent to ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ wallet addresses for each candidate.

Users were then informed of their ability to vote by email, a part of the system that seems to have posed challenges under the stress of real use.

For example, Bitcoin Foundation members took to Reddit to outline their confusion over receiving multiple emails, a concern that Dietz remarked seemed to be “main concern” shortly after the system was made live. Four emails were sent signifying that candidates could cast a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote for each candidate.

Others raised issues about whether the platform would work on mobile devices and whether the voting process could be manipulated by miners who could filter out transactions meant to signify displays of confidence for a particular candidate.

Dietz indicated the blockchain voting system has been in the works since December when Swarm was presented with specifications for an assignment.

“It was fairly clear but there was a bit of a wrinkle at the last minute of how to accommodate ‘approval voting’,” Dietz added, referring to the system by which members can cast their approval for each involved candidate.

Starting a conversation

Murck indicated that, issues aside, most criticisms were directed at the idea of using the bitcoin blockchain for voting, as opposed to the Swarm system itself.

“I think that that’s the dialogue that’s worth having in the community. If we help spark that dialogue, I think it’s timely and I think that it’s important that we have it,” Murck said, citing how the move brought new entrants into the conversation such as developer Gregory Maxwell.

Murck indicated that the foundation made voters aware of the potential for issues at launch. The initial blog post, for instance, advised that there was “a real risk” some members might not have a seamless experience.

Candidates were also mixed on the decision, as Perklin suggested that voicing doubt in the system may have led others to criticize it more vocally.

“What we don’t know is whether that sentence that everyone read prompted people to become so polarized about it. Maybe if that option wasn’t on the table, people would have been more open to embracing the new technology, but probably not,” he said.

Neither Fenton or Perklin suggested they were aware of the decision to implement blockchain-based voting, though both suggested they would have likely objected to the idea of testing the technology during an election.

“One of the biggest criticisms of the foundation that I’ve had is lack of transparency. We kind of wonder how are decisions made and who makes these decisions and why aren’t people included. I think the four candidates as stakeholders would have been logical people to reach out to see if we were in agreement or not,” he said.

Unanimous objection

As opposition to the voting system built over the course of the day, candidates began reaching out to the foundation in the hopes of inspiring it to switch back to the Helios voting system, which uses more traditional means of ballot encryption.

Eventually, all four candidates, including Fenton, Janssens, Perklin and former Bitcoin Foundation global policy counsel Jim Harper signed off on the switch.

“That was important, before we roll back into the system, we wanted to make sure all the candidates were onboard,” Murck said.

Perklin and Fenton were mixed on the day’s events, each voicing their concern that the upheaval could lead some voters to tune out of the election altogether.

“Unfortunately, I think that will be a factor,” Perklin continued. “Before the problem was a technical barrier that would have left out some percentage, now there’s going to be a different percentage left out for apathy reasons.”

Murck, however, strived to put the day’s issues in context, noting that complaints about the Helios voting system were common when it was first introduced.

“Whenever you use a system and you put it out to the world, you’re going to get real-world usage and real-world problems and it will show the cracks in blockchain voting, and that’s a good thing because other people will be able to see it, and other people will be able to innovate and that’s important,” he added.

At press time, the totals for the canceled round of voting placed Janssens and Harper in the lead with 59 Yes votes and 58 Yes votes, respectively.

Latest hiccup

The issues with blockchain-based voting are the latest in what has been an election cycle marked with minor community controversies.

For example, candidates had previously taken to criticizing the foundation for its efforts at spreading awareness about the voting, suggesting a low voter turnout caused by a lack of overall participation and awareness was likely to influence results.

Further, the election was complicated on 20th February when the first round of voting ended with no candidates receiving the more than 50% of the vote needed to secure a seat.

As a result of the change, the deadline for voting will be extended one extra day to 28th February, with final results being revealed on 1st March.

Voting ballot via Shutterstock