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At the Libertarian Convention, where blockchain evangelists dream of a perfect election

A company pitching blockchain voting gets a very small test run

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Russell Sprague via Flickr

Last Saturday, fans of minimal government gathered for the New York Libertarian Party Convention, which was held in the ballroom of a decidedly unflashy Ukrainian restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village. The attendees, who ranged from shiny-shoed businessmen to scruffy survivalist-looking types, were there to vote for the presidential delegates who will travel to the party’s national gathering in Orlando later this month.

But Nick Spanos had arrived on a slightly different mission. A former Ron Paul campaign consultant, he’s now the CEO of Blockchain Technologies Corp., a new company that seeks to replace America's voting system with Bitcoin-derived blockchain technology, and which had been selected to run the convention’s vote that day. Though the convention was small, encompassing just several dozen voters, for Spanos it represented a chance to demonstrate his vision for the future of elections administration, one where votes are recorded on a blockchain database subject to full public scrutiny.

Around 1 in the afternoon, word began spreading that anti-virus software pioneer John McAfee — who was recently deported from Guatemala and is now back in the US, vying for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination — had entered the premises. Spanos spared no time in introducing me to the aspiring politician.

But McAfee, with fading green highlights in his hair and an intense stare, quickly dismissed the core mission of Spano's company, proceeding to stump against larger evils. "The problem has nothing to do with technology. It has nothing to do with purity and truth. It has to do with power, and we have a system in America that controls the voting process," McAfee told me. "We can talk about the technology all day long, but it means nothing unless you have a plan for usurping that control."

As McAfee spoke, I noticed that Spanos and I were both wearing gold-colored admission wristbands, which convention organizers had given to guests they could not afford to feed during the day’s events at the budget Ukrainian restaurant and ballroom. Given how widely the party’s ideas have influenced powerful Republicans, the convention’s modesty lent the Libertarians an underdog air. And, in this backdrop, McAfee’s call for revolution felt a bit ambitious.

Seeming to prefer a more gradualist approach, Spanos was visibly amused by McAfee’s indictment. He’s also eager to expand beyond the Libertarian community, saying that his products are on the verge of being adopted by customers that would dwarf the spendthrift third-party convention. He claims to be in talks with multiple domestic and foreign governments about running their elections on his software.

Having grown up entertaining himself with elaborate circuitry projects in Long Island, Spanos has spent the last few decades focusing on the more technical aspects of campaign consulting and election logistics. He says the inspiration for Blockchain Technologies came partly from frustrations with the opacity of Florida's voting machines during the 2004 presidential election, when he was working for Republicans. "I asked them, 'Let me see the source code,'" Spanos told me, saying that he was denied at every turn. "When you don't know what the hell any of the machines do, how are you supposed to have a transparent election? … They could be counting digital unicorns."

The principles that underlie Blockchain Technologies’ proposed solution are fairly simple. In the system Spanos deployed over the weekend, a voter fills out a paper ballot that’s marked with three QR codes, that assign it a unique blockchain identity. Once scanned, the company’s system routes the digitized vote to the candidate’s "wallet," and the Blockchain record begins to expand. After voting, public versions of the blockchains are released for open inspection (although, as in traditional elections, voter’s identities are not tied to ballots).

All that the company's technology requires is a computer, a printer, a screen, and a scanner — which Spanos says should be kept disconnected from the internet ensure security. Blockchain’s technology can be adapted to all varieties of voting, Spanos says, including electronic voting machines. Yet Spanos emphasized that he prefers to have voters mark their choices on paper ballots. This is meant to not only add a layer of accountability to the system by leaving a paper trail, but also to put voters’ minds at ease. "Humans need the paper ballot," Spanos told me. "It’s going to be a long time before a human trusts a computer." Instead, Spanos argues that his technology can essentially improve analog paper balloting by locking results into the blockchain, creating an obstacle to manipulating any tabulation after the fact.

Spanos leans Libertarian, but says he has worked for both Democrats and Republicans and appears at home in the company of all manner of politician. As his team diligently set up their polling operation on two dining tables in a half-lit corner of the restaurant, Spanos pushed aside silverware at a nearby table and opened his laptop. Using Wi-Fi from an adjacent diner, Spanos showed me several chunks of inscrutable blockchain code before pulling up photographs of his work involving foreign politicians. He had shots of him posing with former Soviet head-of-state Mikhail Gorbachev, photos of him shaking hands with a Somali politician, and — something he was particularly excited to show me — a choppy video of him boldly propping his feet on a coffee table within eyeshot of Fidel Castro at a formal dinner. (Spanos says he also specializes in event planning and logistics of high-profile public figures.)

Spanos argues that the beauty of Blockchain lies in how difficult it makes manipulating the system, even for a biased administrator. "This here, I can’t change any of this shit," Spanos said, pointing to an unused ballot, the type that his colleagues had just been frantically printing off on 8.5 x 11 office paper. "Even if I wanted to, there’s no way I could change this person’s ballot. This is here forever and the whole world can see it."

Spanos' pitch has been enough to convince an initial round of clients. In February, his company worked with Rand Paul’s campaign during the Iowa caucuses, according to a press release, and last month it administered voting at the 2016 Texas Libertarian Convention. Spanos says that he is also in talks with several foreign governments about helping to administer their elections. Citing political sensitivity and competitive concerns, he declined to name any country in particular. He also says that he is speaking to numerous US governmental jurisdictions (which he also declined to name), including a school board in Texas, that he says is looking like a particularly hopeful candidate for his first ever official government election.

As the voting commenced Saturday, Spanos circled the faux-wood ballroom collecting ballots with a wire-mesh basket he paraded above his head. As Spanos delivered the votes to his team’s processing table in the adjoining dining room, a crowd began to form around the operation. After striking up a few conversations with the gawkers, I realized that they were official election observers who had been dispatched by candidates to guard against counting shenanigans.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise: like American conservatives at large, those I spoke with at the Libertarian Convention professed deep mistrust of election administration. This is something that Blockchain Technologies could no doubt capitalize on. It’s possible to imagine that, among red-state governments staffed by officials with similar sentiments, Blockchain Technologies could find receptive ears for its sales pitch of protecting against ostensibly ubiquitous election fraud.

The day after the Libertarian vote, Spanos sent me a video of Republicans — including former Arizona governor Jan Brewer — alleging that electronic voting machines seemed to have been rigged at the party's convention, which had also taken place on Saturday. "It could have happened, they could have done that in Arizona," Spanos told me, emphasizing that his company’s system can leave a paper trail. "But even if nothing happened, if no one got robbed, people still need to feel confident in the results."

"What did Stalin say? 'It's not who votes, but who counts the votes?'" Spanos mused. "But if you count them openly, it's back to 'who votes.'"