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Voting & Science Fiction: Potential Futures

The year is 2040, with two very different worlds diverging from our present U.S. democracy: One is a dystopia of mobile voting, lost choices, and plutocracy. The second is a utopia where democracy is celebrated with patriotic pageantry, and protected by cryptography.

Published onOct 27, 2019
Voting & Science Fiction: Potential Futures

(Left) From world 1: Memes activists tweeted.

(Right) From world 2: Pins with cryptographically secure ballot receipts on the back.

Short Stories From Potential Futures

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Mobile Voting, Lost Choices and Plutocracy

From Crypto Voting: Short Stories From Potential Futures (Dystopia)

The year is 2040 and today is election day. Alice is on her way to where she will vote, but it’s not the polls. The polls are open, but more out of adherence to a national tradition and heritage rather than utility. Alice still hears about people going to the polls in some places, mostly to protest what has come to be, but the media always portrays those folks as “tinfoil hat wearers”. Most everyone these days votes remotely.

After each of the U.S. states implemented mobile voting systems in the 20’s, the voter-turnout rates sky-rocketed from the meager 55.5% of the less technologically advanced 2016. The early implementations were just with smartphones. Registered voters logged in to heavily marketed apps that were created by the hot venture capital funded startups which had won state “mobile voting solution” contracts. Authentication involved uploading some biometric data, or reading a few randomly chosen lines of patriotic text over video, with a novel machine learning system on the backend to analyze the video feed and ensure the voter’s identity. The “tinfoil hat wearers” had initially taken issue with whether or not the app’s servers later deleted this biometric data, but whatever - Alice and her friends knew there were enough video cameras around and videos of them online regardless. Anyhow, those were the old days of smartphones and apps. Most people don’t carry those clunky things around anymore (Alice can remember the scary times she lost one and then broke another by dropping it in the toilet!), most people just use their embeddeds*.

Still on the way to her company’s office, Alice thinks about how much she’d rather call in sick. To distract herself away from that temptation she instead tries to remember the names of the candidates. Maybe the incumbent’s name is “Smith”? And the challenger’s name ends with “Wurst”? Or just rhymes with? It bothers her that she can’t remember their names. Surely she used to know the name of the incumbent. But it doesn’t matter, so she instead thinks about her boyfriend Bob and where he is going this morning. He doesn’t work for a big corporation like her, so he’s going to go meet his vote-buyer elsewhere. Something about his transaction feels more dignified to Alice than the election routine she is heading to. She’ll go into the office, the company will let her know how to vote, and then either her boss, Eve, or someone from HR, will watch over the camera feed as she enters her ballot. Alice had always felt the activity a bit degrading, especially back when she had a smartphone, years ago, and sometimes had to open her mouth awkwardly wide to provide the requisite biometric data for voter authentication. (The embeddeds made authentication seamless.) But there’s a perk: the company supplies lunch and everyone can go home early. Eve had mentioned this might be the last year with “free lunch”.

Alice liked to remember back when elections hadn’t always felt this way. The first time she had used a “mobile voting app” was because she had found someone willing to trade her a beer for her vote. She sipped while filling out her mobile ballot, while he watched over her shoulder. But then large companies like her employer made the process more efficient. They had realized that buying votes, and influencing how their employees voted, was more effective than lobbying. It was even likely that Bob was on his way to meet a “vote recruiter” from her company. There were some ultra-wealthy individuals that bought into the vote market as well (most had made their money from cryptocurrency-speculation back in the day, and tended to vote alike), and since there were vote-buying groups with diverging interests, presidential elections like this one remained competitive.

Besides there still being elections, much had changed during the country’s transition from democracy to plutocracy. Social groups that had once voted as majorities gradually lost their power as individuals were incentivized, or pressured, to vote otherwise. Social minorities lost their voices all together. As the country’s democratic landscape changed, the geographic one did as well. National parkland was sold, and industrial waste flowed into rivers and wetlands as environmental restrictions were relaxed for the convenience and needs of private industries.

The economic changes had happened gradually as well. There had been wealth inequality from the start, but income gaps were widened in what seemed like a spiral once wealthy individuals and corporations began using votes they gained from the masses to back policies and candidates that further aided their enrichment. As they became richer and average incomes stagnated, votes became relatively cheaper, or easier to gain.

Cash-strapped individuals, some of whom had never voted before, found relief in trading a vote for some extra income, and it was all too easy when votes were cast from a mobile app while the vote-buyer stood by.

Companies began suggesting candidates to their employees, and some set aside hours during the day when the company could come together to “vote for their collective interests”. With job security low, most employees did what they could to stay in favor with their employers and followed these top-down suggestions.

Yet the transition to the mobile voting systems that brought about these changes had also been gradual, and far from seamless. The mobile voting initiatives had started with goals to make voting easier and more accessible, and to increase voter participation, especially among young people. These goals were commendable, and the initiative attracted bipartisan support. Politicians added mobile voting to their campaign platforms, with some positioning the initiative as patriotic, others positioning it as pro-democratic, and most using it to position themselves as tech savvy. Much of the public was then frustrated when the roll-out of mobile voting systems was slowed by state-specific bureaucratic obstacles, as well as vocal opponents.

Cybersecurity experts and cryptographers made public statements about how the secrecy of physical voting booths was an invaluable asset to democracy and had no digital or mobile equal. They argued that the privacy of voting booths made elections coercion-resistant: a voter could not prove to a potential vote-buyer how they voted, even if they wanted to, so there was little incentive to waste money trying to buy votes. Voters were protected from coercion, and ballots protected from purchase, in a way that “secure” mobile voting technologies could not provide.

Perhaps their statements didn’t gain traction early on because technologists were the wrong spokespeople to make arguments about democracy or social mechanisms. Or perhaps people found their arguments too unlikely, or too academic, to pay attention to. Either way, when these experts realized states were still moving forward with their “mobile voting solution” contracts despite their warnings, they then staged PR stunts for their cause. They “sold” their votes for beers outside polling stations and then walked in to vote however they wanted to, in order to show how private voting booths made vote buying and coercion ineffective. Once back outside they shouted “have your vote and drink beer too!” The young activists who joined them sometimes took selfie videos of themselves chugging these beers, which they streamed on social media. Others made memes and tweeted slogans.

Memes young activists tweeted: “Have your vote and drink beer too!”

Their activism was no match for the resources of the venture capitalists who had a stake in the mobile voting technology startups. They funded marketing campaigns and SuperPACs and kept political attention focused on goals to make voting easier, pushing the mobile voting initiative past its opposition. VCs also provided financing to make the early mobile voting system deployments possible. Cash-strapped municipalities found themselves suddenly flush with the funds to overhaul their antiquated voting machines - an opportunity they had long sought, but that tax-payer money had not provided.

The outcomes were initially met with celebration as voter participation rates rose! But this quickly turned into concern as rumors of vote-buying and voter coercion surfaced and election officials began to question the authenticity of cast ballots.

The mobile voting technology companies tried to calm the alarm by promising to make their systems more “secure” with blockchain technology. Since neither the election officials nor politicians knew much about blockchains, this sounded reasonable to them, and “mobile voting solution” contracts were extended to give mobile voting a “second chance”. However, instead of building transparently auditable systems, the voting technology companies then went and bought off-the-shelf blockchain solutions that were developed and managed by large tech companies (some of whom were rumored to participate in voter coercion themselves), and never made their blockchains nor their software open source**.

Election officials found themselves stuck in what seemed a balance of conflicts to make voting more accessible on the one hand, and more secure on the other, all the while working to stymie any unintended consequences of mobile voting programs. They took new and creative measures to prevent voter “fraud”. They proposed changes to voting rules: a voter could vote multiple times and only their last vote counted. They proposed extending the hours and days during which ballots could be cast. These measures were recommended as a way to circumvent the threats of voter coercion and vote-buying, as voters could update their ballots. Some jurisdictions did eventually pass these measures, but by then it was too late. Much of the voting population was by then disinterested and barely followed politics. Taking the time to vote again and update a ballot took time out of the day. Alice reasoned that since all of her neighbors would also not care enough to vote again, updating her ballot wouldn’t even matter. When she had once brought it up, Bob said voting again wasn’t worth the risk - her company made software that was in her embeddeds, and with the cameras and embeddeds of everyone else around, her boss Eve would somehow find out.

Alice thought again about where she was going, and where Bob was going. Once at work, her morning would start with a meeting about “coming together as a company”, “shared goals”, and “collective interests”. She tried again to remember the names of the candidates, and realized that this was the first year that she couldn’t. This struck her. Whose goals could she share without knowing who these candidates were? A dread that had been seeping into her all morning surfaced: She wanted to go anywhere other than this meeting. She had awkwardly sat in it too many times before, each time with the uncomfortable feeling of Eve’s watchful presence. But her absence would be noticed. Could she go and then leave? No… that too could be held against her. Did she even need to keep this job? She and Bob had some savings - maybe she could use these while finding other ways to make things work? She remembered years ago when she had chosen to take her job, from what felt like a set of options. She remembered her excitement, but also a sense of heaviness at the thought that she had to choose the right job over the others. She had a sudden urge to turn around, to choose not to go to work, if only to momentarily restore that heaviness she remembered feeling with choices. Maybe she would go vote elsewhere.

Alice messaged Bob. “Where are you?”

Bob sent back his coordinates. He was still at home. “Just about to head out.”

“Wait,” she messaged back. “I’ll come sell mine with you.”

*In 2040 most people use embeddeds. What was previously shown on screens is now either surfaced directly from people’s palms, or projected onto a thin lens that sits within the eye. Embeddeds led to an explosion in human-computer-interaction (HCI) research, fueled by a quest to find the most subtle and natural ways to control these new interfaces, where control extends well beyond the primitive uses of pressing “buttons” and composing text.

Concepts from the outdated technologies of T9 keyboards made a comeback. With just a user’s subtle gestures of fingers with embeddeds, 10 digits (plus advanced autocomplete technology) again became the primary way to use keyboards, and express anything digitally.

A hand with embedded digits.

** Not science fiction: A voting technology company named Voatz has claimed its remote voting technology is secure, partly due to its use of blockchain technology. Yet Voatz has not identified the attack vector which a blockchain secures its technology against. Blockchains are often leveraged to ensure trust with the transparent transaction of data, but Voatz has not made its software nor its blockchain openly auditable to the public. Despite warnings and published concerns from security experts, the Voatz system has been contracted for pilots in West Virginia, Denver, and Utah.

A National Holiday and Patriotic Celebrations of Democracy

From Crypto Voting: Short Stories From Potential Futures (Utopia)

The year is 2040 and today is election day. Alice heads out to the polls, leaving her boyfriend Bob at home, responsible for baking the pumpkin pie they had prepped together. Bob had already voted the Wednesday before, at a quiet time when he could avoid the crowds. Alice instead liked to wait for the final day of voting, when she could engage in the lively scene at the polls. This year she is wearing a red and white striped top and flowing blue skirt.

The scene has grown more crowded, and with increasing patriotic pageantry, each year since Election Day became a national holiday, and voter turnout climbed even higher when early voting days were extended into the weeks before the holiday. This holiday is a day when democracy is celebrated, with people flocking to public parks or private yards for BBQs, though only after voting. It’s a day when red, white, and blue outfits are repurposed from the previous July 4th***, and when communities have the time and space to reflect on what’s worth voting for.

Not only did past years of social changes help increase voter participation and reduce voter suppression; concerns of election interference and hacking also diminished with technical advancements.

Upon casting a ballot, each voter receives an “I voted” pin with their ballot “receipt” on the back****. The “receipt” is a cryptographic hash of the encrypted ballot that was cast and is part of a system that allows anyone to check the integrity of the election. Ballots are no longer tallied by “black box” voting machinery, they are instead tallied in an open online system that is transparent. The “ballot receipts” allow voters to check that their encrypted ballots are properly recorded on the online “bulletin board”. The system then uses tools of cryptography to keep all of these cast ballots secret, while provably showing that they are properly combined to compute the tallied result. Their encrypted combination is then decrypted for the final tally, with the secrecy of cast ballots kept throughout the process*****.

In this year of prosperity brought by technological advancements, the general public is well-educated and mathematically advanced. Most voters understand cryptography’s tools of homomorphic encryption and zero-knowledge proofs that ensure the integrity and security of the election systems. However, most voters don’t need to bother to check whether the ballot tallying systems work as promised. It only takes a few “election auditors”, or concerned voters who care enough to check, to discover a discrepancy and raise alarm.

Once at the polls, Alice looks around at her neighbors, and at the day ahead of her, with a giddy feeling of excitement. The weather is perfect this year for the BBQ at her friend Carol’s place. She’ll see her friends there, drink a couple of beers, likely chat about politics, and have a slice of her and Bob’s now “famous” pumpkin pie.

The worst thing that could happen would be her preferred candidate’s loss, but recent polling had been in her favor.

Alice feels a buzz - a message from Bob. “I burnt the pie.”

And that.

***Stores sell Election Day merchandise just as aggressively as they sell July 4th, New Years, or Thanksgiving themed items. They stock their aisles with red, white, and blue plates, napkins, BBQ equipment, hats, and any other patriotic apparel voters might buy, months before the holiday. (Thrifty voters buy what immediately goes on sale the day after Election Day, in anticipation for next time.)

Election Day merchandise.

****In some municipalities, the receipts are embedded in the pins with RFID tags; in others they are printed and pasted QR codes; in the simplest cases they are the fully printed out cryptographic hashes of the encrypted ballot.

“I Voted” pin with a ballot receipt on the back.

***** The cryptographically secure election system described is not a work of science fiction. Cryptographers have proposed and built such “end-to-end verifiable” systems (e.g. Punchscan, Scantegrity, ThreeBallot, Prêt à Voter, Wombat, Helios). What is science fiction is the initiative to use them. (Note: these systems do not use Blockchains.)

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