Corrected: This story was updated to clarify the extent to which blockchain was used in the election.
On Mar. 7, elections in Sierra Leone marked a global landmark: presidential elections supported by blockchain.
As president Ernest Bai Koroma leaves office after serving two five-year terms, the maximum allowed constitutionally, Sierra Leoneans have had to pick from a pool of 16 candidates including the ruling party’s Samura Kamara, the erstwhile foreign minister, and Julius Maada Bio, former military head of state and candidate of the main opposition party.
Results released by Sierra Leone’s election commission (NEC) suggest a run-off between Bio and Kamara is likely with neither candidate securing the required 55% of votes so far. Sierra Leone’s new president will be tasked with a continued rebuilding given the country’s recent major disasters. In 2014, an Ebola outbreak led to nearly 4,000 deaths and GDP losses estimated at $1.4 billion—a major loss for one of the world’s poorest countries. Last year Sierra Leone’s capital also suffered devastating flooding and mudslides believed to have claimed more than 1,000 lives.
In 280 polling centers across Sierra Leone’s Western District, the most populous in the country, votes cast were manually recorded by Agora, a Swiss foundation offering digital voting solutions, using permissioned blockchain. Agora was accredited as an independent observer by NEC to test its technology and has since published results on its website. The idea was simple: just like blockchain technology helps ensure transparency with crytpocurrency transactions using public ledgers, by recording each vote on blockchain, Agora ensured transparency with votes cast in the district. While entries on permissioned blockchains can be viewed by everyone, entries can only be validated by authorized persons.
A lack of transparency has plagued many elections around the world, but particularly in some African countries where large sections of the electorate are often suspicions incumbent parties or ethnic loyalties have been responsible for the manipulation of the results in favor of one candidate or another. These suspicions remain even when there is little evidence of manipulation. A more transparent system could help restore trust.
Leonardo Gammar, CEO of Agora, says Sierra Leone’s NEC was “open minded” about the potential of blockchain in its elections after talks began late last year. “I also thought that if we can do it in Sierra Leone, we can do it everywhere else,” he says. That thinking is rooted in Sierra Leone’s developmental challenges which make electoral transparency difficult: poor network connectivity, low literacy levels and frequent electoral violence.
The big picture for Agora is to deploy solutions to automate the entire electoral process with citizens voting electronically using biometric data and personalized cryptographic keys and the votes in turn validated by blockchain. Gammar hopes Agora can replicate its work in other African elections on a larger scale but admits that doing so will require understanding the differing challenges each country faces.
Gammar says blockchain-powered electronic voting will be cheaper for African countries by cutting out the printing cost of paper-based elections but perhaps, more importantly, vastly reduce electoral violence.
As Agora hopes to pull off more blockchain-powered elections on a larger scale in Africa, Gammar is confident of finding workarounds for local problems. “If phones are not available, you can go borrow. If you are blind, we can make your phone speak to you. If you don’t read, we can put up pictures,” he says. “There is no big technical issue. Everything else requires being imaginative.”
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