These stories are from a two-part project. While this part is science fiction, the other part is about reality. Both parts are about mobile, blockchain, and cryptographically secure voting in the context of the US election system. (Reality Piece: link)
These stories consider two potential futures for US democracy, branching from our present. One is dystopian, the other utopian.
* * *
Mobile Voting, Lost Choices, and Plutocracy
From Crypto Voting + US Elections: 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.” These days, almost everyone votes remotely from the devices installed within their hands. Although history may see it as a small technical change, remote voting brought about radical changes to US democracy.
Voter turnout rates skyrocketed as each of the US states implemented mobile voting systems throughout the 20’s. As soon as mobile voting was allowed where Alice lived, ads for voting apps flooded her social media feed months before election season. When major social media platforms banned political ads, the ads for voting apps seemed to only replace them, often featuring endorsements from candidates who could no longer advertise for themselves directly (e.g., “‘Trust your vote with Voatz’ — Bradley 2028”).
The initial voting apps were just for smartphones. Authentication involved uploading some biometric data, or reading a few randomly chosen lines of patriotic text over video, with a novel machine learning system 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 a smartphone and then broke another by dropping it in the toilet!) Now most people just use their embeddeds, the digital interfaces integrated into their bodies¹.
Still on her way to her company’s office, where she’ll vote, Alice thinks about the squabble she had with her boyfriend Bob the night before. She had told Bob how tempted she was to call in sick rather than go into work the next day. It was stupid — she knew this would hit a nerve with him. He went off on how her company could hold this against her, reminding her of how lucky she was to have her job. Like many of their friends, Bob had spent months out of work and down on luck, gradually winding down their shared savings. He had only recently found a steady flow of contract work, which had been fortuitous for both their bank account and their relationship.
But now alone again on her way to work, Alice is once again tempted to call in sick and turn around. She could vote at home today, and face the consequences tomorrow. 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 Bob and where he is going this morning. Since he doesn’t work for a big corporation like her, he’s on his way to meet a vote-buyer who reached out to him. Something about the transaction with his vote-buyer 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 observe over the office feed as she enters her remote ballot through her embeddeds. 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 authentication to the mobile voting app. (The embeddeds made authentication seamless.) But there’s a perk: the company supplies lunch and everyone can go home early. Though 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 wasn’t because her company had wanted her to. It 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 realized that influencing how their employees voted was more effective than lobbying. They extended their influence beyond their workforce by hiring “vote-recruiters” to go out and solicit additional votes on their behalf. Bob’s vote-buyer might even be 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.
But 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, industrial waste flowed into rivers and wetlands as environmental restrictions were relaxed for the convenience of private industries.
The economic changes had happened gradually as well. There had been wealth inequality from the start, but income gaps widened in what seemed like a spiral as wealthy individuals and corporations acquired voting power 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.
Alice’s company was among the first to begin suggesting candidates to employees. A special meeting was scheduled each election day for the company to come together to “vote for their collective interests.” More explicit voting buying and selling was supposedly illegal, but well worth the risk for Alice’s cash-strapped friends, who had no trouble meeting vote-buyers. And the transaction was all too easy when votes were cast from a mobile app while the vote-buyer stood by.
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 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 platforms², 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. “How could apps possibly ensure a ballot was cast in secret?” the experts exclaimed. They described how 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. Ballots were protected from purchase, and voters were protected from outside pressures, in a way that “secure” mobile voting technologies could not provide.
Despite the warnings from experts, public opinion continued to favor mobile voting, and states continued moving forward with their “mobile voting solution” contracts³. The experts wondered why. Were they simply the wrong spokespeople for their cause? Too old? Too technical to make arguments about society and democracy? They recruited young activists to join them and began staging PR stunts to spread their message.
This was back when Alice was in college, and several of her peers had gotten involved. A politically active friend had even pulled her in to join a protest event one election day, promising that they would make it fun, and that there would be free beer. The activists “sold” their votes to each other for beers outside polling places and then walked in to vote however they wanted to, in order to show how private voting booths made vote buying ineffective. Once back outside they drank their beers and shouted “Vote in Private! Drink in Public!” The younger activists took selfie videos of themselves chugging these beers, which they streamed on social media. Others made memes and tweeted slogans.