Sierra Leone’s electoral commission is pushing back on reports that blockchain powered its election

“No blockchain, just paper.”
“No blockchain, just paper.”
Image: Reuters/Olivia Acland
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Sierra Leone received extensive global attention after it was reported by multiple outlets, including Quartz, that blockchain was being used to power its recent presidential elections. Now, with the elections deadlocked, the country’s electoral commission is seeking to clarify the limited extent to which the technology was used.

As Quartz initially reported, Agora, a Swiss foundation focused on digital solutions, was accredited as an independent observer by Sierra Leone’s national electoral commission (NEC) to test its permissioned blockchain technology during elections earlier this month. While the NEC doesn’t provide a definition of the function of international observers on its website, observers are generally invited by local election commissions to monitor electoral processes at polling booths to measure transparency.

In that capacity, Agora manually entered votes announced by local polling station agents from 280 polling centers in Sierra Leone’s Western District on its blockchain ledger, which could be accessed publicly. It published the results of its blockchain count on its website. These results could be checked against those tallied by the NEC.

News of the implementation of this technology quickly spread. But the NEC this week sought to correct the idea that blockchain technology was being used for the entire election to officially tally votes:

The NEC has not responded to Quartz’s email enquiries seeking further clarification.

In an updated statement, Agora said that it had experienced pushback on the extent of its involvement in the election and wanted to clarify its involvement. It stated that “official election results only come from the NEC,” and that its ”goal was to have this election demonstrate our capabilities and open the door for further cooperation with the NEC in the future.”

While it was not officially adopted by the electoral commission, there is some potential for use of decentralized technology in elections across the continent. As with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ethereum, recording votes on publicly accessible ledgers in real-time could bring more transparency to electoral processes and possibly prevent electoral disputes which often follow elections on the continent. For instance, the Brazilian legislature is testing the use of the ethereum blockchain to verify signatures collected for popular petitions.

When Sierra Leoneans return to the polls on March 27 thoughin a run off between Samura Kamara, candidate of the ruling All People’s Congress, and Maada Bio, the main opposition candidatetheir votes will be recorded only on paper.