Rafael Cordón: Safeguarding Elections With Bitcoin

Software engineer Rafael Cordón’s Simple Proof system helped prevent fraud in Guatemala’s most recent presidential election. Can this technology be used to insure against election interference in other jurisdictions?

AccessTimeIconMay 15, 2024 at 5:18 p.m. UTC

Rafael Cordón is concerned about how we’re going to protect the truth in the age of AI and disinformation. The Guatemalan tech CEO and engineer began thinking about this issue in the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But never did he consider he might create a technology that would protect a presidential election in his home country from being undermined via a flagrant attempt to tamper with physical voting documents. Yet, this is what he’s done with Simple Proof, an immutable record keeping system that safeguards data using the Bitcoin blockchain.

Who is Rafael Cordón?

Cordón is a native Guatemalan who jovially refers to himself as a “computer nerd.” He studied mechanical engineering for his undergraduate degree and completed a master’s degree in engineering management at Duke University in the late-2000s.

Frank Corva is the business-to-business correspondent at Bitcoin Magazine and host of the "new renaissance capital" podcast.

After working in Accenture’s IT department and consulting for bigger financial institutions, he felt the urge to start his own project. In 2017, while researching distributed databases, Cordón rediscovered Bitcoin (he’d read the Bitcoin white paper in 2011 and dismissed it at the time) and quickly fell down the proverbial Bitcoin rabbit hole.

One year later, he conceptualized Simple Proof and purchased the domain for it. Over the subsequent years, while founding and serving as the CTO for IBEX, a startup Bitcoin payment company based in Guatemala, Cordón continued to develop Simple Proof.

What is Simple Proof?

Simple Proof uses OpenTimestamps, an open-source protocol created by Bitcoin Core developer Peter Todd in 2016. OpenTimestamps enables cryptographic timestamping, which is more trustworthy than human timestamping, because it relies on cryptographic algorithms to verify information as opposed to a human process. Here’s how it works in Cordón’s words:

“OpenTimestamps is an internet protocol that enables a user to interact with the Bitcoin blockchain in order to generate timestamps of documents,” says Cordón. “A digital fingerprint of a document is included through Merkle trees into a specific place inside a Bitcoin transaction called the OP_RETURN function. The OP_RETURN is where you write arbitrary text into a Bitcoin transaction. It’s like the ‘memo’ space [on] a check. This arbitrary text in our case is the proof of the document.”

The document he’s referring to is Document Number 4, the official name a vote tally sheet in Guatemalan elections.

In 2022, Cordón arranged with the Guatemalan government for Documents Number 4 from the then upcoming presidential election be timestamped onto the Bitcoin blockchain as they came in. The Guatemalan Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the highest electoral authority in Guatemala, would use Simple Proof to preserve the integrity of the election results.

But this begs the question: How do we know the information on the vote tally sheets that’s being uploaded to the Bitcoin blockchain is legitimate?

Guatemalan elections, decentralized

Like Bitcoin, Guatemalan elections are decentralized.

The process by which votes are collected and counted in Guatemalan elections is explained in the documentary Immutable Democracy, which tells the story of how Simple Proof was implemented in the 2023 Guatemalan presidential election.

More than 100,000 volunteers and 100,000 observers from different political parties and civil society watch over the creation and collection of over 150,000 Documents Number 4. The volunteer citizens who comprise the Vote Reception Boards watch as voters submit ballots at voting tables. At each table, the volunteers count the votes and transcribe the results onto their Documents Number 4. Other volunteers and observers watch as Documents Number 4 are completed.

The Documents Number 4 are then sent to the Elections Process Operations Center. There, almost 25,000 boxes of election materials, including the top layer of Documents Number 4 (each of these documents separates into three copies: the white original copy and a yellow and blue carbon copy), are transferred to the Municipal Elections Boards. Volunteer citizens calculate the results at this level. Those totals are then transferred to District Elections Boards, where volunteers tally results at the district and national levels. The tallies of the official results are then transferred to the TSE, where they are classified as official results.

A scene from Immutable Democracy in which a government agent seizes election documents (Immutable Democracy).
A scene from Immutable Democracy in which a government agent seizes election documents (Immutable Democracy).

The yellow carbon copy, an unofficial copy of the results, is scanned and uploaded digitally to a system whose name translates to the Preliminary Elections Results Transmission (TREP). Two different people scan each of these yellow documents to validate that the information on each of the documents was uploaded without distortion. The first person scans this sheet at the voting table. The second person scans it at the Municipal Elections Board level. If the two scans match, the results are published on TREP.gt for Guatemalan citizens to audit.

When I asked Cordón if he trusts this process, he responded with the following:

“You have 125,000 volunteers that are counting the votes, and you have election observers from the political parties, which are probably another 25,000 to 50,000 [people],” says Cordón. “Plus, you have external election observers from local civil society and international organizations. You're talking about 200,000 people [who] are involved in the election. I don't know how you can create a conspiracy between 200,000 people.”

The simple proof

As the unofficial digital versions of the vote tallies come in, a hash, or “Digital Fingerprint”, as Cordón puts it in Immutable Democracy, is generated for them. The hash is then saved through OpenTimestamps, which registers the data on the Bitcoin blockchain.

Through the TREP.gt website, anyone can audit the Documents Number 4. In the portal, they can click a button whose translated text reads “Verify Hash” and be brought to the Simple Proof’s website, where they can find the hash and Bitcoin block that contains the document as well as the exact time the document was received.

Documenting the exact time of verification is important because votes are counted and uploaded in real-time, and a vote tally sheet that’s uploaded long after votes have been counted has a better chance of being fraudulent.

Invalidating the Results of the Election

The unexpected victor of the 2023 Guatemalan presidential election was Bernardo Arévalo, a progressive candidate who ran on an anti-corruption platform. Shortly after the TSE declared Arévalo’s victory, his rival, Sandra Torres, filed court challenges in efforts to overturn the election, alleging fraud in the vote count, according to Time.

Torres’ party, UNE, claimed on X that some votes were uploaded prior to voting centers closing. This wasn’t true, though. The screenshot of the tally posted on X was taken in a time zone with a one-hour time difference from the time in which the voting center in question was located. La Hora, one of the biggest online news outlets in Guatemala, reported that UNE’s claim was false, citing information from the Simple Proof portal as evidence.

In the midst of Torres and her party, UNE, protesting the election, officials from the attorney general’s office raided the TSE facilities, opening boxes of votes and photographing their contents, according to AP. And two weeks after that, an agent from the national prosecutor’s office seized a box of election documents, including Documents Number 4, the video footage for which is featured in Immutable Democracy.

Democracy’s Last Stand

As mentioned, Cordón did not anticipate what unfolded in the wake of the presidential election. He was as surprised as anyone else to learn how fragile his country’s democracy was. As he recounts the story, he seems more disturbed by what happened than happy that Simple Proof played a role in protecting information from the election.

“I never thought that this would be democracy's last stand because the documents were taken away,” says Cordón. “They could have just edited [the documents] and said, ‘Hey, you committed fraud. We found the real document [and] it’s not what you uploaded into the TREP system.’ I don’t think these people understood what the [Simple Proof] meant when they violently took the documents. They only realized afterwards that there was nothing they could do in terms of altering the documents.”

Other governments to use Simple Proof?

Cordón as his team are speaking with different governments that are interested in using Simple Proof to verify election information. However, he warns that implementing Simple Proof isn’t a panacea.

“I want this to be used the right way. I don't want to blockchainwash something that's not done properly,” says Cordón. “If an authoritarian leader wants to use Simple Proof, I don’t want to be a part of it.”

Plus, political actors can still use AI or disinformation to distort what people see in the media or through other digital lenses, which can affect how people vote.

“As we consume more of our information through digital means, how do we know what is and isn't true?,” says Cordón. “We need to build tools to protect people, to protect ourselves, to protect the truth. Simple Proof is one solution that we think is helpful, but I hope more people get involved in solving this huge problem.”

Edited by Benjamin Schiller.


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Frank  Corva

Frank Corva is a writer and analyst for digital assets at Finder.com. As someone who’s lived and traveled all over the globe, he loves the idea of the world being connected by Bitcoin (BTC) — a neutral, apolitical, secure and borderless network and digital currency.

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