Several states have recently tightened their voting protocols, often by requiring people to show a government-issued photo ID before casting a ballot. Such laws reduce the likelihood of election fraud, but they also come with a cost: Millions of Americans lack government-issued photo ID. According to New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, perhaps as many as 11 percent of eligible voters.
The percentage is higher for women, minorities, seniors, students, the disabled, and the poor. That's one reason the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled in August that Texas' voting requirements had a discriminatory effect on blacks and Hispanics, a decision ratified last week by the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. To avoid violating the Voting Rights Act, the courts decided, the state must find a way to help voters who face hardships in securing identification.
Many of the people who have trouble obtaining government IDs do already have smartphones. A report by Pew Research Center stating that "roughly three-quarters of Americans now own a smartphone, with lower-income Americans and those ages 50 and older exhibiting a sharp uptick in ownership over the past year." Pew also reported an astonishing 12-point increase in smartphone ownership in 2016 among households earning less than $30,000 per year, to 64 percent of that population.
Enter the blockchain, the technology that undergirds the digital currency Bitcoin.
The blockchain is a decentralized data storage system that facilitates a public ledger of transactions. This ledger can manage a wide range of functions, including personal identification data and ballot storage. All blockchain transactions are verified and cryptographically signed to ensure security, immutability, and anonymity.
The hope is that this technological improvement could serve as a more efficient way of confirming personal identity while mitigating all-too-common voting system vulnerabilities tied to mistakes and fraud.
Amid the rancor surrounding voter IDs, there has been a growing interest interest in a blockchain-based concept known as "self-sovereign ID." Voters could store their identity data on their devices, easily providing identity information to those who need to validate it without relying on the government or any other third-party intermediary.
Armin Ebrahimi, CEO of ShoCard, a blockchain-based data and facial recognition firm, says: "When an individual safely creates a self-certification record on the blockchain and digitally signs that record with a private key that belongs only to them, they can establish ownership of that record. An authoritative certifier can then verify that the individual's record before confirming it on the blockchain."
Ebrahimi goes on to note that in addition to a person's record containing government ID and other information, it can also have a hash of their biometrics (such as facial image). That person can then go to any third party, share their digital ID and certification records, and have their record ownership confirmed utilizing what the authoritative parties have certified through the private keys. In other words, the individual determines who gains access to their digital information, for the purposes of voting or otherwise.
While this model shows promise, it nevertheless take us back to the knotty issue discussed earlier, namely, if the person does not have a government IDs, is there another way to verify their identity?
Here's a thought: A number of credit issuers and banks have online systems for confirming one's identity based on a series of multiple choice questions about their past history scrubbed from public records. While it can be alarming for some users that an analytic tool knows so much about their past, this technique demonstrates that a private firm can do as good, if not a better job as a government issuer, of capturing someone's identity—without taking recourse to government-issued paper such as birth certificates or social security cards.
Bottom line, if the person's identification can be properly certified, the barrier of voting can be made easier and less problematic. The innovative use of the blockchain shows promise in terms of creating a more viable voting process that mitigates concern about voter access and fraud.
Michael Scott is Las Vegas–based journalist focusing on blockchain and digital currencies.