04 April 2023

“At Decidim, we’ve also been working on having our own online voting system based on the protocol of Microsoft Electionguard. So we were having these conversations about the problems and challenges that we had been facing”, says Carol Romero, Product Owner of Decidim. When Vocdoni had their software development kit (SDK) ready and offered them a grant to experiment, it was easy to sign an agreement. 

“The partnership is a win-win”, says Jordi Aulet, Product Lead at Vocdoni. “They can provide a more private and secure voting system to the users and we can reach more people with one simple integration.” 

Introducing and testing the voting tool

The first test of this new module was an internal election at the Extraordinary Assembly of the Decidim Association in March. It allowed them to detect and fix possible problems in a controlled environment.

“The vote of the General Assembly went smoothly, with more than half of all members participating”, says Carol Romero. “Even so, it detected some necessary adjustments in the administrative part of the tool. All in all, the tool is a functional first version, to be further iterated in the coming months. By the end of the year, we would like to have run two more pilots with small to medium institutions or social organisations that already use Decidim. We think they’ll be interested in trying this kind of feature.”

Carol Romero emphasises the hybrid model of participation that Decidim promotes: “the digital layer is never meant to substitute other political arenas, like public councils and face-to-face meetings. It’s about combining the two layers and augmenting them. It’s about closing the digital divide.” According to her, in order to gain trust in new technologies you have to use them, sensibly, step by step, instead of trying to escape them. 

“Estonians have been able to build this trust because they have been voting [digitally] for 15 years.” 

Marta Sancho, Project Manager at Vocdoni, explains she was surprised at how easily people adapted to their system. According to her, adoption is about bringing complex technology down to the real world with the help of a friendly user interface. “I don’t need to explain to my grandmother what blockchain is. We abstract all the complexity for the voter while preserving the benefits of the technology.”

Addressing security concerns

Regarding the general security concerns that experts raise regarding internet voting, both Decidim and Vocdoni responded the same.

“Everyone is questioning new technology and trying to find where the leak is”, says Marta Sancho from Vocdoni. “But if we really think about how many leaks and how many points of attack voting in a ballot box could have – it’s mental.” 

The Vocdoni voting system uses its own blockchain called Vochain that comes with all the desirable features of this technology, like immutability, transparency and verifiability. “We have the Explorer function”, explains Jordi Aulet, Product Lead at Vocdoni. “You can use it to check all the blocks, all the processes, all the votes. You can’t check who voted what, but you can verify that your vote was included and everything went well. The technology does this by itself.” Marta Sancho highlights the transparency that comes from their open-source approach, as well as the architecture of the blockchain, which allows their system to work without Vocdoni moderating the election. “You do not have to trust us, because it’s a trustless system.”

Furthermore, Vocdoni is currently working on a zero-knowledge proof, which is a method to prove the integrity of a vote without conveying any other information. Here Jordi Aulet explains: “We already have anonymous voting, but from the organisational point of view, the organiser has all the information about the members. So right now, we are implementing pure anonymous voting. This will add a new step where you provide a password that only you know. That way, even the organiser cannot know anything about you.” 

In addition, Vocdoni doesn’t track any data like IP address, location or time zone. “The most secure data is the one that you don’t have”, says Jordi Aulet. “It’s impossible to crack.” Their voting system also prevents coercion, as voters are able to change their vote multiple times. “You can change the vote without anyone knowing, because only you know which option you voted for.” 

Vocdoni sees technology’s scalability is within reach

The Vochain can process 40.000 votes per minute, which allows for large-scale elections. So far, scalability has been one of the limitations of blockchain technology. Yet, Ferran Pallàs, who is in charge of partnerships at Vocdoni, insists that: “The scalability of the project is not rated with a limitation. It’s rather a decision. 40,000 votes per minute allows us to host voting in a medium size country. […] What we need right now is to prove that our technology is working. If we need a bigger, stronger blockchain in the future, I know we will create it. We have proven that we can create one that is really reliable. So we can do it again, with bigger numbers.” 

Vocdoni currently uses a proof-of-authority protocol, meaning they distribute a limited number of nodes between themselves, as well as some universities and other ecosystem members. This keeps the complexity to reach a consensus in check. In the future, Vocdoni plans to switch to a proof-of-stake system, where the next block gets added to a chain based on the amount of staked tokens. This type of protocol is more energy efficient and harder to attack than common proof-of-work systems. Jordi Aulet assures: “[Proof-of-stake] will secure the whole network.”

Decidim seeks to offer voting flexibility 

Decidim’s product owner is looking to integrate a variety of election types into their infrastructure. For now, the new module supports only simple voting, but one of the advantages of the Vochain is its flexibility. 

“One of the cool things with the Vocdoni protocol is the ballot architecture is very open”, explains Jordi Aulet. “You can do simple voting, multiple-choice voting, quadratic voting, weighted voting. For instance, a participatory process can be a weighted voting with you having one million Euros which is representative of your voting power. You can then split this voting power into 5 projects and every project has a different amount. This is possible right now.” 

While Decidim works together with Vocdoni to leverage this flexibility, they continue the development of their own voting system. “Ideally, you could choose the module that suits you best. Electionguard has an active community. It is a solid open source project with the support of Microsoft behind it, although we found some limitations in implementing it. On the other hand, both systems will eventually have a cost, which is yet to be determined. So there will be different use cases for everyone”, explains Carol Romero.

Implementing new systems like the one from Vocdoni, allows Decidim to stay independent. “We are establishing these dependencies, but the fact that we diversify in different kinds of engines, allows us to experiment. Because we really think that we need to push these kinds of technologies in order to gain adoption and see how they go.”

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