The US desperately needs new election tech. Time for blockchain?

I know you don’t want to hear about how blockchain technology can fix elections, solve cold fusion, restore trust to America, bring global peace, and invent a new way to slice bread.

I’m pretty tired of the blockchain hype cycle too.

But if there’s one thing that proves current election technology is essentially trash, it’s the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Days later, we still don’t know for sure who won or lost, there are allegations about fraud or miscounts, and multiple legal challenges to the results already. Baseless or not, our current election process and technology invites challenge and provides fodder for conspiracy theories.

Can digital voting fix this? Can blockchain help?

Well, it could hardly be worse.

Get the full story in my post at Forbes …

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(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity).

John Koetsier: Can digital voting save us from election hell? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.

The 2020 U.S. Presidential election is insane. And, frankly, proves that current election tech — if we can call it that — is trash. Days later, we still don’t know for sure who won. There’s plenty of allegations about fraud or miscounts, lots of legal challenges coming. Can digital voting save us? Can blockchain help?

To dig in, we’re chatting with Tim Goggin, who’s the CEO of Horizon State. Horizon says that they offer “fair, transparently verifiable, and ultra-secure voting.” Welcome, Tim!

Tim Goggin: Hey, thanks for having me. 

John Koetsier: It’s a real pleasure to have you. You’re in Australia. What city? 

Tim Goggin: I am. Yeah, I’m in Melbourne. I am a New Zealander who lives in Melbourne, Australia. 

John Koetsier: Wow. There’s a lot of you, it’s amazing. I am near Vancouver, Canada. We’re both watching the U.S. election. What are you seeing there? 

Tim Goggin: Ah well, it’s been a really interesting election to watch and I’m sure entertaining for some. But given the space that we work in, we’re paying quite close attention to it. We’re seeing all kinds of issues and a lot of claims from both sides, particularly, they’re kind of drawn along partisan lines at the moment.

But in particular, some of the real concerns, we’ve had a pandemic the last year or so.

And the solution for that for the U.S. government when it came to their election, was to use a mail-in ballot system, combined with polling booths within your local municipality or county or whatnot. And that’s created a ton of logistical challenges which they’ve discovered. So, in particular, they’ve had all kinds of issues with people not receiving their ballot forms on time, people requesting multiple ballots. There’s been issues. The rules are different state by state, but the way that States choose to treat what could be considered an invalid or valid vote — so some States are like, well, you have to have cast your vote by polling day, and other States are saying, well, as long as, you know, we have to have received it by ballot day.

And that, of course, that’s probably heading straight to the Supreme Court. And I think now you’re in that kind of space where you’ve got two political candidates, they’re going to battle it out in the Supreme Court.

You’ve got an entire country that don’t know what’s going on. They’re probably quite anxious, and they kind of want to know who their president is going to be for the next four years, which is one of the most important decisions that is made within that sort of four years. So, overall, I think this is really bad for public trust in our democratic institutions, because trust is probably the most important commodity when it comes to western democracies or stable democracies around the world. And so if we have a declining level of trust in our public institutions, it — there’s going to be consequences to that going forward.

And I think the United States government is going to have to have a good think about what they’re gonna do next time, especially with all the issues like counting and the delay time to announce the winner and stuff. 

John Koetsier: It’s literally amazing to me … there are some areas, some counties, where they literally didn’t start counting some of the mail-in ballots until yesterday or today. Some, I heard, are not even counting them until the weekend.

And I’m like, you had such a huge proportion, like a hundred million votes cast via those non-traditional ways, the mail-in vote and everything. I’m astonished by that. What’s the solution? 

Tim Goggin: Well, there’s quite a few solutions, but generally, it’s along the principles that you’ve got to follow.

So, so far as I’m concerned, an election like this, we did have this pandemic and governments understand that they need everyone to be able to vote if possible. Elections need to be accessible so that everyone can engage and express their right to free expression, which is really important in the United States. So, the first thing is it needs to be super accessible.

And so you can do that through a variety of means, but I would put forward the idea that a securely and well-built internet-based voting platform is a good way to go.

Mostly because you don’t have to rely on the postal service who — and they make mistakes sometimes, like you can send a postal ballot to someone’s house with a code or whatever, or just, you know, we’re seeing it over there right now. It might not get to that person. They might be on holiday somewhere. There’s no guarantee you’re actually going to get your ballots to that person or that they still live at the address or whatever. There’s so many logistical challenges here, it’s probably about time we start looking at other ways to authenticate online.

And there’s countries all around the world at varying stages of matureness in this regard. So yeah, accessibility is definitely one.

Number two is the security of the platform itself, or the system that is being used. So, like it needs to be protected from almost every attack vector possible. There’s no perfect system in the world that exists, but we can get pretty damn close I think, especially as technology matures. And I think we can do a lot better than what we’ve seen in this election just been.

So, you need to have security, but one of the ways that you’re going to achieve that is you need to have transparency. So if you can’t like — so people trust what they can see, and if you can see what’s going on, you’re far more likely to trust it. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Tim Goggin: And so when it comes to — I mentioned before, we’re looking at a scenario where people are losing faith in government, in general. And, you know,

Pew Research from I think last year, only 22% of Americans trust government to do the right thing. And that’s down from 77% in the mid 1960s. 

So that’s a huge fall. So, there’s a case to be made if you’re someone involved in politics, or an executive at council, or something like that … if you’re looking at this decline in trust, it’s like we need to start finding new ways to allow people to see that their voice is being heard, to see that their vote is being recorded and counted correctly, and giving them an avenue to audit an election, and to tally the votes on their own if they want to.

Because again, if they can see it, they’re far more likely to trust it.

And I’ll probably add in here too, sorry, it’s also really important as well that if you can see these things are on, you know, publicly and it’s all transparent, then it kind of forces political people, politicians and stuff, to be responsive and accountable to what is publicly seen by everyone. So if there’s a closed-door process and that’s where all your votes are being counted, and there’s all these other avenues that you’ve got to rely on, the postal service — the votes are transferring hands all over the show and people just don’t have faith in a system like that. And I don’t think the government does either. Because like, usually they’re used to having, you know, from the polling booth all the way to announcing a winner, they have all the votes in their possession.

So I think this, what’s happened hasn’t worked very well for anyone. 

John Koetsier: Well, the other interesting part is that not only is the process — especially this year — complex, it’s long. The votes and the ballots change hands, you also have methods of tallying them up that appear to be by hand in some sense. Because we had that one error that many jumped on as ‘there’s obviously fraud here’ where there was a hundred thousand jump for Biden in — I think it was Pennsylvania, it was one of those States — and it was an extra zero that was added by somebody, right?

And so we actually need a platform that not only has some level of identity, has some level of — ‘some level’ — a good level, a high level of security and visibility and transparency as you’ve talked about. But also, you know, the tallies, everybody could see where that’s coming from, where that’s going, and that’s free of manual error.

Tim Goggin: Yeah, exactly. And I think that might’ve happened in Michigan as well. We’re hearing claims and stories around this show, and we know like there’s, you know, the state said it was a clerical error — and errors happen — but the thing is, like, we can do away with these errors using technology.

And we don’t have to have, in the media you’ve got like, oh, this is the current situation, this person got this many votes, and the other person’s trailing them by X amount. And then in five seconds, suddenly it’s, you know, you get 500,000 votes or whatever’s dropped, and it’s like, okay the projected winner’s changed all of a sudden. That is going to raise a ton of questions for the other political — the voters of the other person running for office. All of those people and in that state, it might’ve been like 5 million people or something that voted for that candidate.

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Tim Goggin: All of those people are suddenly going to lose a lot of faith or start asking questions. And those are questions that, you know, it would be probably just be much easier if we just had like a secure technology platform that could just say, hey, this is where it all is, you can see everything that’s going on, you can look at it yourself. And we don’t have to go, okay, there’s a clerical error and a whole lot of votes have been added. You know, especially if your candidate loses after an event like that, you’re going to seriously start suddenly going to social media, complaining, and then the seeds of doubt start to spread.

And so what we really care about is like public trust in our democratic institutions, so it’s critical to a functioning society. And so, you know, I think political people are watching this. I think it’s really important to start lifting trust in these institutions. 

John Koetsier: Exactly.

Tim Goggin: And this is one way to do it.

John Koetsier: Exactly. And so, I mean, we had one commenter who brought up blockchain and we’re going to get into that. I want to ask you about that — it is critical. If your candidate is losing, you’re obviously looking for reasons why, right? And if there are obvious errors then you’re looking at — you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist, there’s lots of conspiracy theories around, more than enough — you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder and maybe vocalize that wondering about what’s going on. And in a country like the U.S. — very different than Australia, very different than Canada — it’s an armed-to-the-teeth country. 

Tim Goggin: It is.

John Koetsier: And so you don’t have to wonder very hard before some people get very angry, perhaps, and maybe start doing some things here. So you use blockchain. Why is that a good solution for this? 

Tim Goggin: Okay, so I’d say it’s a good solution for quite a few reasons. Mostly the sort of principles that I mentioned before, are the crucial components to a secure election.

So it’s, number one, it’s transparent. And so everyone can see what’s going on, you can ensure that your vote was recorded and counted correctly. And then if you want to, you can go audit individual votes, you can count up the votes yourself.

I mean, every single election might have a slightly different structure, it might use different blockchains with different roles associated with that election, but this is one way it could look. It’s far more secure. So once something’s published to a blockchain — I should actually explain that, give a rough idea of what a blockchain actually is for those who aren’t familiar — but once information is put onto a blockchain, it is extremely difficult or nigh impossible to change afterwards.

So think of a — imagine I walk into a restaurant and you’re in there and I scream really, really loudly, ‘My name is Tim!!’ and you’re like, okay, cool. And then I walk off. And, you know, someone — but there’s like 30 people in the restaurant, and they’re like, okay, that’s weird. But they all know my name is Tim, and they’re like, okay, cool. But I walk off, and then someone else walks in five minutes later and they go, ‘I heard some guy yelling before. What did he say?’ And let’s say someone lied and goes ‘Ah, he said his name is Simon.’ Well, you’re going to have 29 other people in that room, they’re going to go, ‘No, no, he said his name was Tim.’ And if that person walked around the room and talked to everyone, they’re going to be pretty sure that the name was Tim and not Simon.

So it’s kind of a — blockchains are essentially a database that is very hard to change and they are a way of agreeing on what the real state of history actually is. So, at the end of the day, we are doing the exact same thing, the same principle, but we’re using just technology, computers, the internet, and votes. So, a lot of people are familiar with blockchains from digital currencies especially, you know, Bitcoin’s a very, very well known one. And so Horizon State are focusing on using it to secure elections and save democracy. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. Save democracy. That’s a big mission.

What other technology is important? You’ve talked about transparency — you get that with blockchain, as long as it’s an open blockchain and people can examine it, other things like that. We’ve seen some comments come by about identity. Is that built into your solution?

Tim Goggin: So we offer a couple of different identities … ways that people can authenticate through the system. But one thing that we actually focused on is most governments are not realistically going to allow some third-party provider to say, ‘You can take care of voter enrollment, I’ll actually take care of the authentication as well.’

So if you’re a United States government, if you’re the government there, you’re probably not going to want an Australian company to take care of all of that. So we’ve built our software in a very modular manner. So we can basically integrate with anyone’s authentication system that they require.

We’ve had to do this in the past with the South Australian government, for example. So, you know, we basically just talk to the potential client and we say, ‘Hey, what do you need? How would you like your voters to be authenticated? What would you like to do?’ And we go ahead and make it happen as a very bespoke system. And I think that’s an Australian word, ‘bespoke.’ I think you guys use the word white glove, I believe. But— 

John Koetsier: I wouldn’t say white glove. Bespoke is also used in the U.S. It’s a very U.K. word, kind of old fashioned, but it’s a custom solution. Right? 

Tim Goggin: Yeah. And to add to that as well, like a lot of countries around the world, including Australia and New Zealand, are both working on digital identity solutions—

John Koetsier: Yes.

Tim Goggin:  So that you can pretty much — you can already do it here in Australia, it’s called myGov. New Zealand has RealMe. And you can already, you know, you can do your taxes online and all these other things. But they want to kind of add new features to it so that you can actually probably take care of digital voting in the future, or probably save time when you’re doing something, signing up with a new bank, for example. They could probably just use this one-stop shop.

And I know that both countries are investigating the use cases of using blockchain for digital identity purposes, and that’s something that we’ve got a keen eye on as well. 

John Koetsier: We can drive the conspiracy theorists nuts by saying, ‘Hey, we’ll just use Facebook or Google or Twitter for identity.’ I understand that that’s not a solution.

Tim Goggin: Oh we could really upset a lot of these conspiracy theorists ’cause maybe they’ll find out that there’s nothing weird going on, and then they won’t have anything to complain about or … you know, who knows? 

John Koetsier: I think that’ll be really, really tough because it’s a complex world with a lot going on. You can always find one thing that correlates with another thing and say there’s a causal relationship. So that’s really tough. So, this is interesting, it seems like we need a solution like this.

I’m talking not just about the U.S. where, you know, this election is going to drag on for maybe more days, but certainly longer, weeks, months even, in the courts. But any nation, right? Including our regional governments, city governments as well. Just a simple, quick way everybody can cast their vote, one day, you can do it wherever you happen to be. It’s all clean and transparent and instant. Everybody knows the result right away.

How do we get from where we are — I mean, especially in countries, Canada we just, we have elections that are, you know, there’s paper ballots as well, and you can see that paper ballot, you can trace it, track it, that sort of thing. How can you get from where we are to a modern voting solution? 

Tim Goggin: So I think the first one would be — so governments are often really slow to make changes. So it’s just like very large enterprises they’re very risk averse—

John Koetsier: That’s shocking … I didn’t know that, haha.

Tim Goggin: So often you’ll have, you know, the trailblazers will be like the small startup companies that come along with new technologies and then every now and again, one of them will go, ‘Oh, that’s a really cool idea.’ And it might take a little while for large enterprises and governments to say ‘Okay,’ because we’ve got millions and millions of customers or citizens, or whatever, you know, we need to be a little bit more careful because we can’t afford a mistake. I’d probably be looking towards the U.S. right now and I’d probably say, well, you’ve got a big one right there that could have been dealt with a lot better.

And I think it’s events like this one, and we might be seeing this a lot more around the world because a lot of countries around the world are still being wrecked by COVID at the moment.

We might be seeing more of these scenarios and probably more and more of the everyday people are probably going to start saying to elected officials, ‘We need to start looking at a new solution, a new way of doing this. And not only that, we want to know what’s going on. We want to be able to see and validate end to end that our vote was handled correctly the way it should be.’

Because the last thing you want is to vote and find out that it didn’t make it to the polling, you know, it didn’t make it to your state government or whatever, it got lost in the back of a truck somewhere. 

John Koetsier: Absolutely. 

Tim Goggin: So, yeah, that’s probably the most — most of it is just really applying pressure to your current government and encourage them to use new technologies. Tell them that what’s happened is not good enough. And I think also that once governments realize that trust is super important when it comes to their capacity to succeed and to govern effectively, because if the public doesn’t trust you, they’re not going to listen to you. You’re going to have some real problems.

So, like I said before, I think it’s like, trust compounds incrementally over time, very slowly, but it’s lost instantly.

And an event like this, you need to start looking at new solutions to start rebuilding that relationship between the people being governed and the people that are doing the governing. 

John Koetsier: Well said. Thank you, Tim, for taking some time with us.

Tim Goggin: Thank you very much, John. 

John Koetsier: Well, thank you everybody else for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the show. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this within a few days at JohnKoetsier.com, and the full story is at Forbes right after that. Plus of course the video is on my YouTube channel. Thank you for joining, maybe share with a friend. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.

 


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