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XO.1 adapts Blockchain for secure super-fast vote counts

Originally posted by The Australian

An Australian start-up says its technology could count votes in an Australian election in just 4 minutes. That’s faster than we’d probably take to fill out a ballot paper.

It’s the claim of Australian internet voting start-up XO.1 which says it has completed a 1.5 billion vote” stress test” of using the Bitcoin blockchain to aid its voting platform called SecureVote.

It may be unfashionable these days to suggest that Australia adopts computerised voting, particularly after last year’s debacle with the census. That hasn’t stopped XO.1 which has a passion about direct democracy.

The 4-minutes claim presupposes that the election is conducted electronically.

The key to SecureVote is blockchain. Anonymised votes are “clumped together” into “pallets” or “boxes” — 140,000 votes per box in the recent test. An algorithm creates a “hash value” for each box. It’s a unique identifier based on all the voting choices.

The hashtags are stored in the Bitcoin blockchain. Alter any vote and the hash value of the box would change. It would no longer match the hash value stored in the blockchain. That’s how XO.1 invokes security around the stored votes.

Why not just store every vote in the blockchain rather than a hash value? Chief executive Nathan Spataro says such a system would be too slow, is not scalable to large elections, and too costly. He says XO.1 chose the Bitcoin blockchain ahead of the Ethereum blockchain app platform because it was “an order of magnitude more difficult to compromise”.

That’s only part of the story as there needs to be security, integrity and anonymity of voting all steps of the way. That includes the initial voting process before invoking the blockchain, for collecting and counting votes, and for voters confirming their digital identity in the first place. The system uses a smartphone app for voting and cryptography as an additional security measure.

“The big breakthrough we have made is a vote shuffling engine called Copperfield that can take a group of voters in a decentralised fashion, and perform a vote shuffle that basically anonymises everybody’s vote,” he says. “Every voter node can say ‘yes. my vote has been counted’, that the system can say the vote has been counted, but no one can determine which vote is who’s.”

The company is looking not only at public election voting but a swag of other scenarios such as shareholder AGMs. “Our unique use of the blockchain creates an immutable record of the votes cast in an election, or at an AGM, overcoming much of the traditional problems associated with electronic voting,” Mr Spataro says.

But could counting of an Australian election really occur in 4 minutes? In theory Mr Spataro says: “Yes” based on testing the scalability of its system. “This test demonstrated we could handle 10 million votes per minute at its peak, so we’re confident it wouldn’t crash if every Australian voted in the space of four minutes,” he says.

But he says that the operation of the Bitcoin blockchain could see a count take half an hour. This is because a Bitcoin block is added about every 10 minutes, and in this case, you’d wait for three blocks to be written to ensure no previous block is replaced or orphaned, Mr Spataro says.

“We don’t actually count the votes until after the votes have been referenced in the block that we know is secure in the block chain.”

He says a large scale machine could count 20 million votes per minute. Such a system could handle 10 million people filling out their census online at the same time. And you wouldn’t need a supercomputer. “This is a powerful decentralised network,” he says.

He says the test is the first step towards giving Australians easy access to internet voting. “Based on our current road map, we expect Australians to be able to cast their first immutable electronic ballot in 2018,” Mr Spataro says.

Mr Spataro agrees that for a general election you’d need additional systems for areas around Australia without secure online access, for those unable to operate phones and tablets, and for those with a disability.

Mr Spataro and co-founder Max Kaye met in 2014. Both were part of the Bitcoin community. They founded The Flux Party to promote direct democracy and more grassroots access to the political system.

XO.1 says it has received $500,000 of early stage funding so far.

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