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Sierra Leone Pilots Blockchain-Based Voting for Political Elections

Although the use of blockchain technology in Sierra Leone’s presidential election earlier this month was initially overblown, the vote did utilize distributed ledger technology in a pilot test for use in a national government vote.

According to a statement from the Swiss-based blockchain technology developer Agora, it ran a trial blockchain election test, covering 280 polling locations in Sierra Leone’s West District as a “partial deployment” of its technology. Though this may not be as significant a use of blockchain-based vote counting as was initially reported, it does mark a significant stride for the critical mainstream use of the technology.

As part of this pilot, in collaboration with Sierra Leone's National Electoral Commission (NEC), the country’s West District results were registered on Agora’s distributed ledger and the tally was made publicly available days before the usual manual count would have allowed.

After the NEC clarified that Agora’s blockchain technology had not been officially used to tally the election results, Agora issued an “official statement regarding [the] Sierra Leone election.” It clarified that Agora’s status was technically that of an international observer, accredited by the NEC. But Agora’s blockchain technology had been used to unofficially tally a subset of votes, potentially demonstrating that blockchain-based e-voting represents a viable technology solution for political elections.

Agora, founded in 2015, develops blockchain-based digital voting solutions for governments and institutions, enabling remote and instantaneous voting through a process that is supposedly tamper-proof, fully transparent and end-to-end verifiable. According to the developers, the Agora blockchain-based e-voting solution represents a significant improvement over conventional voting systems, which are “slow, costly and easy to manipulate.”

“This election highlights blockchain’s potential to ensure a permanent, transparent and secure record of votes,” noted an Agora press release. “Sierra Leone is the first government to use blockchain [technology] in part of its election process, which its officials anticipate will bring attention to the measures they’re taking to improve transparency and security in their elections, as well as fight corruption.”

The MIT Technology Review reported that “blockchain technology has real potential” for use in elections, “since it can be used to create tamper-proof audit trails.” It noted that “Sierra Leone’s test was at least a step in the right direction.”

At the same time, the test should be considered as a preliminary step. The votes were manually counted and input to Agora’s permissioned blockchain by 280 designated individuals, a process that doesn’t completely eliminate the possibility of fraud.

However, this is only a first step toward full deployment of blockchain-based voting.

“I strongly believe that this election is the beginning of a much larger blockchain voting movement,” Agora CEO Leonardo Gammar told CoinDesk.

"We're really bringing something to the table where a voter themselves can audit the election,” added new Agora COO Jaron Lukasiewicz, who previously founded the digital currency exchange Coinsetter.

“Agora’s voting solution satisfies all of the requirements that we believe are necessary to ensure a free and fair election, including transparency, privacy, integrity, affordability and accessibility,” claims the Agora white paper. “Blockchain is the key technology that unlocks this mission. Blockchain [technology] provides a trustless, digital and decentralized method of generating cryptographically secure records, which also preserve the anonymity of participants while remaining open to public inspection. Applied to voting, blockchain [technology] ensures that votes are recorded accurately, transparently, permanently and securely.”

The NEC could choose to make full use of Agora’s blockchain technology in future elections and add integration with a public blockchain to make the process fully auditable by the public.

It appears that e-voting is an ideal early application for distributed ledger technology, because — barring challenging security and anti-fraud concerns — it’s a conceptually simple application with a crystal-clear rationale. A 2016 European Parliament document, for instance, suggested that the future of democracy itself could be linked to blockchain-enabled e-voting. “Cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab” recently unveiled “Polys, a secure online voting system based on blockchain technology and backed with transparent crypto algorithms.”

Blockchain-based e-voting systems found initial operational applications for informal, nonbinding consultative voting in academia and similar environments. But now, with the Sierra Leone initiative, e-voting is beginning to be used in the more challenging scope of political elections. 

Once blockchain-based voting systems are able to demonstrate watertight security, they could address the challenge of counting errors and fraud in elections. 

“The [blockchain-based e-voting] technology we have developed can potentially be used for general elections, providing transparency and enabling significant savings,” Mike Rymanov, founder and CEO of the U.K.-based blockchain development firm DSX Technologies, told Bitcoin Magazine, commenting on a successful e-voting pilot for enterprise applications.

In fact, while blockchain-based e-voting has its delays and costs, it could be much cheaper than traditional voting systems. It could also be much faster, enabling governments to implement direct democracy with frequent consultations on a wide range of political and social issues. This would be, arguably, a world-changing development.

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