65.4, November 2018

Bitcoin, Blockchain, and Ballots: Technical Communication and Trust in Electoral Systems

By Jim Nugent


Purpose: In light of widening, popular distrust of electoral systems, the question of how to improve confidence in voting has become especially timely and important. Complicating the issue are emerging technologies that threaten to “blackbox” and obscure the function of voting systems. In addition to discussing the longstanding issue of trust in voting technology, this article provides a review of useful macro-scale concepts for practitioners to consider when working on projects related to electoral systems.

Method: After providing a synthesis and overview of the broad principles of electoral integrity, I overview blockchain (the technology underlying Bitcoin), discuss its possible application to voting systems, and consider its implications for the broader goal of fostering voter trust and legitimacy.

Results: Technologies such as blockchain have the potential to not only change the mechanics of voting but to change the very definitions of “transparent” and “trustworthy” as applied to election systems.

Conclusion: Trust in elections systems is ultimately a rhetorical, rather than technical, effect. As technical communicators are increasingly called upon to “unblackbox” election technologies, they must remain attentive to the potentially shifting values that define trustworthiness for the electorate at certain historical moments.

Keywords: voting, elections, blockchain, transparency, rhetoric

Practitioner’s Takeaways:

  • Trust is the “gold standard” and primary objective for election administration, and researchers have identified a number of principles for maintaining trust in the integrity of electoral systems. These principles are helpful for technical communicators and UX designers to consider when working on projects related to electoral systems.
  • Blockchain—the technology underlying the global cryptocurrency Bitcoin—has the potential to transform many kinds of information systems, including those used for voting. Blockchain brings its own set of advantages and disadvantages to elections, but it may also require entirely new ways of thinking about what it means for voting systems to be transparent and trustworthy.
  • Trust in electoral systems is not a technical feature of a particular voting technology but rather a rhetorical effect. As such, technical communicators and UX designers are in an ideal position to help in the important civic work of educating the public about voting systems and establishing trust in elections.


In July 1856, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published a detailed account—complete with engraved illustrations—of an unusual ballot box that was discovered in use during a San Francisco election. Described as “the stuffer’s ballot-box,” the device included two secret compartments which could be filled with pre-marked ballots (Saltman, 2006). By manipulating panels on the side and bottom of the box, the vote tally could be changed by corrupt election officials while still keeping the box’s wax seals, as well as the apparent integrity of the vote, intact (“Stuffer’s,” 1856). News of this fraud led many people around the country to question how such “a device of concealment and chicanery” (Foutch, 2016, para. 4) could come to threaten the purity of the electoral process.

As recounted by historian Ellery Foutch (2016), just a few days after the story ran, an enterprising man named Samuel C. Jolie demonstrated a novel device at the New York Mayor’s Office: a ballot box made of glass. Inside an ornate, cast-iron framework, Jolie’s ballot box held a blown-glass sphere designed to keep cast ballots in full view of everyone present. Jolie’s invention was well received and quickly adopted in several jurisdictions. As Fauch noted, The New York Board of Councilmen lauded the invention:

The very transparency of the glass globe and visibility of the operations within would, they asserted, provide “perfect security and inviolability.” . . . In contrast with the dark murkiness of the wooden ballot box whose potentially hidden crevasses might contain contaminating and “false” votes, Jollie’s contraption provided literal transparency, keeping the ballots at all times “in sight” of voters and electors, as the committee repeatedly emphasized, suggesting a holdover from Enlightenment-era values that conflated visibility and virtue, what Michael Gaudio and Jay Fliegelman have referred to as the “politics of visibility” and self-evidence. (“A Clear Alternative,” para. 9–12)

As Foutch observed, “the rhetorics of visibility and transparency” (para. 1) were designed right into the new ballot boxes, and their “arresting architectural form . . . along with their inherent promises of transparency and neutrality, made them icons in representations of fair and orderly elections” (para. 4).

Of course, to most voters, the effect of the boxes was only rhetorical. An unfortunate side effect of any secret ballot system is that there is no way to assure that a cast ballot is counted in the final tally. Inevitably in the voting process there comes a point where “all the voter can do is trust” (Alvarez & Hall, 2008, p. 36) that their vote is actually counted. Jolie’s glass box was itself simple and immediately appreciable in function to anyone in view. But what happened to the box—let alone the ballots cast within it—was unknowable to most voters after they left the polling place. The process of tallying was still readily manipulated, and the new glass box’s promises of transparency and integrity proved illusory; at best, the new ballot box could only persuade the voter that a certain type of election tampering did not take place in their immediate presence (Foutch, 2016). Still, in its rhetorical effect on voters, the transparent ballot box was undoubtedly important in cultivating some measure of public trust in the electoral process.

Trust is, of course, essential to democratic governance. Celeste, Thornburgh, and Lin (2006) have noted that “democracies derive their legitimacy from elections that the people collectively can trust” (p. 29) and fostering trust in election processes should be the overarching goal—the “gold standard” (p. 132)—in election administration. Given the current widespread concern in the US over the integrity of its electoral systems (Stewart, 2017), the question of how to foster trust in elections is particularly timely and important. Recent years have brought numerous proposals for new systems for voting, ranging from touchscreen, direct-reading electronic voting booths (DREs) to technologies as exotic as distributed blockchain, the technology underlying the global cryptocurrency Bitcoin. New voting technologies bring with them entirely new possibilities, benefits, and drawbacks to the electoral system. But to the degree that they are not understood by the electorate, such technologies may render the mechanisms of voting increasingly opaque and untrustworthy. Much like “the dark murkiness of the wooden ballot box” (Foutch, 2016, para. 5), emerging voting technologies threaten to move elections to an “unobservable digital realm” (Carter, 2017, para. 3). The workings of digital election systems are not likely to be as clear to modern voters as Jolie’s ballot box was to 19th century voters.

In describing her work with a voter outreach project in the pages of this journal, Pryor (2017) noted that “it is crucial that technical writers and UX professionals collaborate with election administrators to ensure we are designing a culturally inclusive democracy” (p. 163). From creating effective registration recruitment materials to coordinating UX design for balloting interfaces, there are many roles available for technical communicators to “design democracy” and to work toward the gold standard goal of trustworthy elections. In fact, technical communicators’ broad expertise in communication, usability, accessibility, and technology seems ideally suited to this important civic calling. In this article, I present an overview of some the principles of election integrity and discuss the implications of emerging digital technologies for building trustworthy election systems. Specifically, I provide an explanation of blockchain—the technology that enables the online cryptocurrency Bitcoin—and I examine its potential as a voting technology. Blockchain’s success as a distributed information system has many researchers considering it for applications to other domains, including elections. Although its use in large-scale civic elections is speculative at this time, I believe that it is worthwhile to understand not only the possibilities and challenges that technologies like blockchain might bring to election systems but what insights they may provide into transparency and trust as operative principles in elections more generally.

Principles and Possibilities for Trustworthy Election Systems

This is an undeniably tenuous period in the history of U.S. electoral systems. If you are a contemporary reader, you are likely to have witnessed—not once but twice—something that has occurred only five times in all of U.S. history: Electoral College victories secured without the popular vote. (No one now living has witnessed a previous instance.) In all likelihood, you can recall the phrases “butterfly ballot” and “pregnant chad” from the contentious 2000 Florida recount. You are also likely to be aware of ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. During that race, Donald Trump fomented mistrust of the electoral process by claiming that the final vote would be “rigged” (Trump, 2016). Even after his election, Trump falsely asserted that millions of illegal immigrants had voted for his opponent Hillary Clinton and denied him the lead in the popular vote (Kessler, 2016).

Stewart (2017) identified at least three major areas of concern for the health of U.S. election systems—concerns that first emerged in 2000 and that became particularly acute in 2016:

The first focuses on election administration. Races can be close, and election outcomes can rest on the performance of voting technology and other matters that have to do with how elections are managed. The second centers on the worry that the U.S. system of verifying voter identity at the polls leaves elections open to being overrun by ineligible voters (noncitizens, felons), double voters, and impersonators. The third concern is a fear that growing reliance on computers to manage everything from voter registration through the final reporting of results makes elections vulnerable to computer errors and, still worse, the malice of hackers. (p. 51)

Especially troubling for U.S. governance is the partisan nature of these concerns and how they strike so deeply at the electorate’s trust in the infrastructure of voting itself.

Of course, in the broadest sense, distilling the collective will of an entire electorate into a single, unambiguous vote tally is a huge and enduring challenge, and the question of how to hold fair and accurate elections remains a subject of ongoing research in political science, computer science, cryptography, philosophy, and other disciplines. In considering this question, scholars have, at various times, advanced principles that an ideal voting system should adhere to. By way of summary and synthesis, here are some of them (see Lowry & Vora, 2009; Celeste, Thornburgh, & Lin, 2006; Mateu et al., 2014; Jones & Simon, 2012; Paul & Tannenbaum, 2009; Gilbert et al., 2010; Frith, 2007; Conrad et al., 2009; Bringula & De Leon, 2014; dos Santos, 2011):

  • One person, one vote. Only eligible voters may participate in elections and they may only cast one ballot each.
  • Ballot secrecy. To prevent intimidation, coercion, or retaliation that could corrupt a voter’s true intent, voters have a right to privacy in their ballot selections.
  • A voter may not sell or trade their vote. One way to assure this is through the feature of “receipt-freeness,” where no identifiable connection between a ballot and a balloter is ever recorded, and no connection between ballot and balloter can possibly be made. If it is impossible to prove to a vote buyer or coercer how one voted (or even if one voted), it is impossible to satisfy their illegitimate demands.
  • Verifiability. Voting systems should be “end-to-end” verifiable, from casting to counting. That is, voting systems should allow voters to know that their ballots have been recorded, interpreted, and tallied correctly. In addition, the public at large should be able to verify that all votes have been received and tallied correctly.
  • Usability. At the voter interface, the ballot system should be readily appreciable in its operation and not require specialized knowledge to use. The balloting system should also be tolerant of human errors, both in balloting and in the deployment and administration of the system itself.
  • Accessibility. Voting systems should be adaptable to voters of all abilities. For instance, blind or physically disabled voters should be able to use the system directly and not have to sacrifice their ballot secrecy or ballot verifiability by relying on a third party to complete their ballots. Voting systems should also be able to serve speakers of many different languages.
  • Availability. The process of voting should be easy enough that all who want to participate can do so. Voting should not require inordinate amounts of the voter’s time, hassle, or resources.
  • Fair play. The rules for the election should be applied fairly and uniformly across the system. Bias effects (such as those caused by the ordering of candidates’ names on a ballot) should be eliminated.
  • Integrity. No part of the system may be corrupted by malicious agents. For instance, the system should not be hackable by individuals from the outside nor permit its results to be altered by dishonest officials from the inside. The system must also be immune to non-malicious threats, such as service interruptions and faulty equipment or software.
  • Comprehensibility. As a prerequisite to trusting the balloting system, voters should be able to comprehend how it works. This is, of course, impossible if hardware and software systems are proprietary closed source, or otherwise held off-limits to the public. Comprehensible systems must also be transparent systems.

Of course, several of these principles stand in direct contradiction to one another, a fact that immediately illustrates the utopian nature of an ideal voting system. For example, the principle of end-to-end verifiability is incompatible with the principles of ballot secrecy and “receipt-freeness.” If it were possible for someone to retrieve a complete record of his or her ballot after an election for the purpose of auditing the system, for instance, it would also be possible for a coercer or vote buyer to demand to see it. Alternatively, voters in an end-to-end verifiable system could easily undermine the principle of fair play by falsely claiming that their vote was corrupted, perhaps in order to erode public trust in the legitimacy of the winning candidate or to change the results of a tight race. A voting system that is consistent with all of the principles above is, unfortunately, not possible and compromises and trade-offs are inevitable.

However, new digital technologies now make it possible to do things that paper ballots and ballot boxes (even glass ones) cannot, leading some to reconsider the balance of trade-offs that exists in current voting systems. Despite some apparent drawbacks, for instance, electronic voting holds great potential to make voting accessible and available at the point of the user interface in ways that physical balloting is unable to (Celeste, Thornburgh, & Lin, 2006). But beyond the interface, digital technologies may also allow us to shift the balance of trade-offs in more profound and unprecedented ways. For instance, blockchain—the information technology that enables Bitcoin—has come to the attention of some researchers as a potential system for elections (Piazza, 2017; Noizat, 2015; Swan, 2015). Although originally developed as a system for moving money around online without having to rely on a bank or other intermediary, Bitcoin also just happens to operate in several ways like an ideal voting system.

As I will describe more fully in the sections ahead, one of the key innovations of the Bitcoin network is that it prohibits anyone from spending the same bitcoin twice, just as an ideal voting system does not allow someone to vote twice. Just as an ideal election system keeps ineligible voters from participating, the Bitcoin network does not allow someone to spend a bitcoin that they do not legitimately own. As an information system, Bitcoin has apparent integrity and resistance to fraud. Despite having no central banker or clearinghouse to coordinate its operations, the Bitcoin network is, as of this writing, serving as a trusted exchange for over US$143 billion in capital (“Bitcoin Core,” 2018). The network has so far demonstrated resilience to hackers, and its lack of centralized control makes manipulation by corrupt officials very difficult. Bitcoin transactions are public, immutably recorded, and verifiable, but, at the same time, they are also pseudonymous. Bitcoin also meets at least one criterion for transparency in that the software it runs on is entirely open source and its code is available for review by the public. This intriguing combination of features has led some researchers to consider how Bitcoin—or, more precisely, the technology underlying it known as blockchain—might be used to improve balloting systems.

To be sure, as I write this, there appears to be an ongoing mania and irrational exuberance for Bitcoin. The market valuation for bitcoins has recently swelled, and so too has a backlash of popular wariness and distrust of the cryptocurrency. While Bitcoin has made many people wealthy, it has also been dismissed as a Ponzi scheme and criticized as “a bubble wrapped in techno­mysticism inside a cocoon of libertarian ideology” (Krugman, 2018, para. 2). And although the blockchain infrastructure of Bitcoin has not yet been fundamentally compromised, hacking and social engineering have been used to defraud the holders of bitcoins (Lee, 2017). Still, although there is a much to remain skeptical about with regard to Bitcoin and its promoters, blockchain stands as an innovative combination of technologies (Narayanan & Clark, 2017) that has many serious scholars turning to it for lessons applicable to other domains of information technology. But before I look at Bitcoin and blockchain’s particular application to voting, I would like to first provide a more detailed introduction to the technologies themselves.

From Cryptocurrency to the Ballot Box

Bitcoin and blockchain were developed by someone, or some collective, publishing under the name Satoshi Nakamoto (2009). The protocol was devised to solve the problem of how to transfer money to other people on the Internet in a way that behaves like cash (Swan, 2015). Most of us perform online monetary transactions on a daily basis, but few of us give much thought to how mediated those exchanges can be. For instance, if you were to buy something online, you might turn to an intermediary such as PayPal to deliver your money to the correct party. To make that transfer, PayPal might debit your bank, credit your PayPal account, and transfer that amount to the seller’s PayPal account. This works fine for most purposes, but what happens if PayPal suddenly goes out of business, has technical difficulties, or decides to charge exorbitant fees? Or what if you wanted to send money to people or places of the world that are underserved by banks? In these cases, it would be nice to have something that behaved like cash but worked entirely online.

The challenge of implementing an online currency is that no physical object such as a coin or banknote changes hands. A fundamental property of physical coins and banknotes—one that we are all sadly familiar with—is that you can only spend them once. Since physical tokens cannot be moved around the Internet, an online currency has to consist of information. Of course, the idea of money existing only as information may seem unnerving, but most of us are actually already used to this in practice. For instance, if I write a check to you, and we both bank at the same institution, no physical money moves at all between us; the bank merely changes the information on their ledgers to show that my account is debited and yours is credited. The money in your account is no less real to you because it’s merely information; the important part is that you have faith that this information can be transferred to others and still count as money, or it can be converted into real banknotes if you ever need to. You also have faith in the bank to record the transaction accurately in their ledgers (and you have legal remedies available to you if it does not).

But if I wanted to send some money to you using an online currency, what would stop me from sending my money—that is, my information—to both you and another person at the same time? Unlike physical cash, sending online currency to two people at once could potentially be as easy as, say, sending an email to two people at once. This is known as the “double-spending” problem in online currencies, and, before the development of Bitcoin, the only workable solution to the problem was to have third parties and central organizations keep ledgers and clear every transaction (Denning & Lewis, 2017). The big innovation of the Bitcoin network is a feature called the blockchain, which acts as a massive public record of every bitcoin that has ever changed hands, along with a pseudonymous record of who exchanged them. Every time a bitcoin is spent, the transaction is recorded in this ledger and the ledger is distributed to everyone else in the Bitcoin network all around the world. Because the entire living history of exchanges is constantly available to everyone, it is always clear who holds the title to which bitcoin. Because the ledger is so widely distributed—and because it incorporates some clever cryptographic techniques—cheating the system is very difficult. Blockchain effectively solves the double-spending problem and makes it possible to have a reliable online currency without a central authority.

The end result is a system that works much like cash online. Just like cash, Bitcoin can store and transfer value directly between parties without an intermediary. But, unlike cash, nothing physical has to change hands. In some ways, the online currency improves on cash (for instance, counterfeiting cash is easier than counterfeiting bitcoins). In other ways, the protocol is worse than cash (without government fiat, no one is legally required to accept it as payment and no entity is in control of its monetary policy). Although Bitcoin will probably never deliver as much as its most utopian supporters believe it will (e.g., Swan, 2015), it is still noteworthy for its ability to function as a non-centralized, trusted medium of monetary exchange. As Narayanan & Clark (2017) have noted, although the concepts and techniques it relies on originated decades ago in academe, Bitcoin is remarkable not so much for the hype surrounding it but for combining serious ideas from disparate corners of scholarship into a system that is workable in the real world.

As mentioned, the relative success of Bitcoin has many researchers curious about what the blockchain idea itself might contribute to other realms. For instance, blockchain’s ability to publicly record who owns which bitcoin could just as easily be used to record who owns which condominium. That is, blockchain could be used to perform functions that are ordinarily taken care of by governments, such as recording deeds for real property, liens, patents and copyrights, and other forms of public recordkeeping. In 2014, a U.S. couple became the first to have their marriage recorded in the Bitcoin blockchain (Smith, 2014). By writing a short vow in what is essentially the “memo line” of a Bitcoin transaction, their proclamation of love became an unalterable part of the Bitcoin public ledger. (They intentionally destroyed 0.1 bitcoins in performing the gesture, worth about US$32 at the time but over US$2,000 in December 2017.) Although this act was merely symbolic, the permanent and public nature of the blockchain suggests how it might function as a civil registry. As Swan (2015) has suggested, “blockchain governance” could take advantage of “the blockchain as a universal, permanent, continuous, consensus-driven, publicly auditable, redundant, record-keeping repository” (p. 44), and, by doing so, nothing less than “a more truly representative democracy might be obtained” (p. 45).

Others have observed that blockchain might be used to store patients’ medical records, to facilitate the execution of contracts, to timestamp copyrightable works, to provide online data storage, to facilitate logistics and supply chain management, and more (Hoy, 2017; Tsilidou & Foroglou, 2015; Swan, 2015; Manski, 2017). Some have suggested that blockchain can singlehandedly save the recording industry (O’Dair & Beaven, 2017). Others have conjectured that it could prevent slavery in the seafood industry and enforce fair labor standards by tracking global trade in fish from the ocean to the dinner plate (Capri, 2018). Several commentators see particular promise in blockchain for serving the needs of developing nations (Schmidt, 2017; see also Barabas & Zuckerman, 2016). For instance, electronic banking services could be provided over cellular phone networks in otherwise “underbanked” regions of the globe or in places where high service fees make banking difficult. Ultimately, time will tell which of these possibilities for blockchain will become real and which will prove to be hopeless optimism. Time will also certainly reveal unanticipated applications, new evolutions, and outright failures of the blockchain concept. But between the irrational exuberance for Bitcoin and the serious scholarly attention paid to blockchain lies fertile ground for thinking about issues of technology and trust.

“Trust Us”

In addition to other social and civic functions, blockchain holds intriguing possibilities as a voting technology. It is not difficult to dream up how a Bitcoin-like system could be used for voting: If one bitcoin was issued to each eligible voter to use as a ballot token in an election, each person could then “spend” that token on the candidate of his or her choosing. The bitcoins would transfer into each candidate’s account in a secure, reliable, and publicly verifiable way—with no cheating or double-spending permitted—and the candidate with the most bitcoins at the end of the voting period would be declared the winner. The final tally would be public and voters could see for themselves that their tokens were counted correctly in the blockchain. Because the blockchain would be widely distributed across many different computers, it would be very tricky for a central authority or outside agent to corrupt the election. This last feature makes blockchain voting promising for use in oppressive regimes or in the developing world (Meylan & Runde, 2018).

Although it’s not hard to dream up how blockchain voting might work, it’s also not hard to appreciate its many attendant problems. Ensuring the identity of eligible voters remains a sizeable challenge for electronic voting systems of any kind, for instance, and a blockchain balloting system would need to find an agreeable solution to the conflict between the principles of “receipt-freeness” and maintaining the verifiability of votes and tallies. Bitcoin transactions are not entirely anonymous (they are simply pseudonymous), so, in the voting system sketched above, it would be possible for someone to reveal their vote to a vote buyer or coercer. Proposals do exist, however, for refined blockchain voting systems that could ensure privacy and maintain the secrecy of the ballot (e.g., McCorry et al., 2017).

For many critics, however, a larger issue is that electronic voting of any form is unsettling—and perhaps doubly so when connected to the suspicious entity known as Bitcoin. A number of researchers and commentators object to leaving behind the physical verities of ballots and ballot boxes and suggest that voting systems must have a voter-verified physical “paper trail” to ensure that they don’t become black boxes (Alvarez & Hall, 2008). The concern for readily observable voting technologies is hardly a recent phenomenon; in an 1897 Rhode Island supreme court decision finding that mechanical voting machines were acceptable for use in state elections, Justice Horatio Rogers offered the following dissent:

It seems to me that, for a person to vote by ballot or paper vote, he must have some sensible evidence—some knowledge by means of his senses—that he has performed some effectual act by means of paper to indicate for whom he has voted. After he has pushed the buttons, he cannot affirm, much less swear, that he has made any mark, perforation, or other distinguishing character on, or by means of, paper, to indicate the persons voted for. Nor can any one else give him that assurance by any sensible knowledge. (Barnefield, 1898, p. 734)

Echoing Rogers over a century later, Harris et al. (2004) demonstrated a similar concern for “sensible knowledge” by defining black box voting as “any voting system in which the mechanism for recording and/or tabulating the vote is hidden from the voter, and/or the mechanism lacks a tangible record of the vote cast” (iv). For many observers, the tangible, physical attributes of election records are essential for trust in voting systems.

But just as Bitcoin has persuaded some individuals to forego the physical verities of tangible cash, it’s worth considering how systems like blockchain might improve on the physical processes of voting as we know them. The trade-offs inherent in current voting systems warrant reconsideration in light of new technologies, particularly as these technologies could bring us new solutions to longstanding problems with the administration of elections. For instance, there is much room for improvement of U.S. voting systems in terms of accessibility (serving voters of all abilities and languages) and availability (minimizing the amount of time, hassle, and resources required to vote). New digital technologies could allow for a wider range of interface accommodations for physical, intellectual, and other disabilities. Similarly, remote electronic voting could make it possible for voters to securely cast their ballots using relatively accessible technologies such as smartphones. Eliminating barriers to voting, such as the time and transportation resources needed to vote in person, would allow more people to exercise their right to vote.

Beyond the advantages available at the immediate voter interface, however, newer possibilities such as end-to-end verifiable voting systems may suggest broader ways to bring trust and integrity to elections. For instance, rather than knowing how their ballot is cast, members of the voting public might find it easier to trust a system that let them know that their ballot was cast. That is, many of the technologies of voting (such as optical scan paper ballots, glass ballot boxes, and tangible paper trails) have an intentional rhetorical effect on voters: Because they aim to appear simple, honest, and unambiguous in function, the persuasive effect on voters is that the election system itself is simple, honest, and unambiguous (what Foutch referred to as the “rhetorics of visibility”). For instance, nothing about the optical scan ballot encourages a voter to consider that their checkmarks may not be interpreted correctly by the scanner, that the votes cast may not be tallied correctly, that the ballot may be thrown out due to a court ruling that stops a recount process, that a corrupt official may alter or destroy their ballots, and so on. By contrast, an electronic, end-to-end verifiable voting system is unlikely to be as simple or transparent in its function: Unlike a glass ballot box or a pencil mark on an optical scan ballot, how the blockchain or cryptography works is beyond the ken of most users. But, by making it possible for voters to audit their ballots and ensure that their intent was recorded correctly and applied to the final tally—and by enabling the public collectively to audit every ballot—such systems might lead voters to trust that the system works even if they don’t necessarily know how.

This may sound like a dangerous invitation to move elections into a deep black box. However, it is important to remember that current voting systems already contain many black boxes and unfortunate trade-offs. As Paul and Tanenbaum (2009) noted, when asked why we should believe that a voting system is honest, the only available answer is usually “trust us” (p. 29). In practice, voters can only have faith in the “chain of custody procedures used to protect ballots from the point the ballot is printed or programmed through the process of tabulating, reporting, and auditing the election” (Alvarez & Hall, 2008, p. 181). A system that allows users to verify that it works correctly, even if other aspects of the system remain opaque, could prove more trustworthy than a system that makes a few rhetorical gestures toward transparency, but otherwise relies on the voter’s pure faith. Particularly as newer generations of citizens may be increasingly socialized to trust distributed networks over central authorities, what today remain only speculative possibilities for digital technology could eventually become the norm for trustworthy systems.


Since electoral systems are tied so closely to matters of trust and perceptions of government legitimacy, it is never possible to just talk about voting technologies in isolation. As Paul and Tanenbaum (2009) have noted, voting technologies need to be considered as part of the broader systems they are enmeshed in:

Electronic voting has real advantages over paper ballots as long as the focus is on a voting system, not a voting machine. Rather than concentrating solely on more advanced cryptographic algorithms, designers should be viewing the problem from a system perspective, considering all the pieces and striving for defense in depth. (p. 23)

For blockchain or any other advanced digital technology to be implemented in an electoral system would require not only some very nontrivial undertakings in usability, design, engineering, testing, and documentation but a large-scale renegotiation of the social contracts for voting. It would also be necessary to consider how a technology as novel and seemingly opaque as blockchain could fit into established systems of trust.

An important consideration—and one that is easy to lose sight of when discussing the finer points of various balloting schemes—is that the “gold standard” of trust in elections is not actually a technical feature of a particular technological system but is rather, ultimately, a rhetorical effect. Trust has to be built rhetorically using strategies appropriate to particular audiences at particular times. For instance, to 19th-century voters alarmed at the prospect of sham ballot boxes, Jolie’s glass box sent a timely, appropriate, and persuasive message that their votes would be secure. By the early 20th century, however, concerns about voter intimidation came to eclipse concerns over ballot fraud in the popular imagination. Ballot secrecy eventually became a more desirable value within the electoral system than transparency, and Jolie’s glass ballot box largely disappeared from use (Foutch, 2016). This is an important reminder that the balance of acceptable trade-offs in any election system is very much a matter of public tastes at a particular historical moment—it is always kairotic and audience-centered. Just as the glass ballot box gave way to systems that promised more secrecy, what citizens consider to be the essential qualities of trustworthy elections (such as tangible interfaces and physical paper trails) could possibly give way to new requirements (such as open source software and hardware and end-to-end verifiability). Perhaps the only certainty is that larger system of values defining trust is going to shift and evolve in time.

As technical communicators and UX designers are called upon to contribute to electoral systems, they are ideally situated to engage in the rhetorical work of “unblackboxing” voting technologies (Dorpenyo, 2016) and cultivating trust in elections and democratic governance. In doing so, it is helpful to remember not only the broader principles of electoral integrity but how those principles are made meaningful to particular audiences at particular times. To be sure, I am not advocating for any particular approach or technology for reforming election systems in the present article. However, I believe that the technologies considered here—from Jolie’s glass ballot box to Bitcoin’s blockchain—are worthy of examination for what they may reveal about how trust already operates in our electoral systems and how trust might be built in the future. They also suggest an important role is waiting for us as technical communicators. As professionals used to working at the interfaces of users, systems, trust, and technologies, we are well-prepared to help “design democracy” into all parts of the electoral system, from voter registration materials to ballot interfaces to whatever new possibilities emerging technologies may offer.


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About the Author

Jim Nugent is an associate professor and director of the major in writing and rhetoric at Oakland University. His research interests include rhetorical theory, writing programs, and the teaching of technical communication. With Greg Giberson and Lori Ostergaard, he is editor of Writing Majors: Eighteen Program Profiles. He is available at nugent@oakland.edu.

Manuscript received 17 February 2018, revised 2 July 2018; accepted 15 August 2018.