“It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes.”
The above phrase is famous to illustrate how fragile elections can be. Elections, with all its limitations, has been a way to express people’s political choice using papers discreetly. This conventional method of election is prone to manipulation by the officials who count the vote. In this system, there is no actual and transparent verification method other than witnessing the count with their own eyes. In the hope of increasing the number of voters, providing better security, as well as making elections cheaper and easier, the paper-based election then evolved into electronic voting (e-vote) or Internet voting (i-vote). Using this method, digital technology (including the Internet) is used to cast votes. This method, however, does not fully guarantee the security of the process, as there were several cases where e-vote systems were hacked. A paramount example is Russia’s cyber espionage towards the United States (US) to disrupt the 2016 elections.[i]
A new hope rises when blockchain is invented. Blockchain is a way to log and verify records of data that is transparent and distributed among users and servers.[ii] This means every activity, transaction, and data stored in the system will be available and accessible to all users and servers in the system, making it extremely difficult to be hacked. Anyone who wants to manipulate the stored data must modify the data in every server, change it from the beginning of the system, and do it fast enough before a new ‘block’ or set of data is created. Thus, blockchain has a high-security level and is used by many operations today, such as cryptocurrencies (e.g., Bitcoin) and banking (e.g., Royal Bank of Canada).[iii]
The Test Drive in Sierra Leone
Realizing the enormous potential of blockchain, companies and tech developers have started to expand its utility. Blockchain’s verification method is very useful to be applied in the election. With decentralized records of voting, for example, it is possible to keep the vote count more secure, fast, and transparent.
The world was shocked with a bombastic news about the first-ever election supported by blockchain technology in Sierra Leone on 7 March 2018 which was powered by Agora—a technology company from Switzerland. Unfortunately, the news was only exaggerating. Blockchain was not used as an official voting, data recording or counting method in the election. Agora only gained an international observer status from the National Election Commission (NEC), thus they monitored the process in 280 polling locations in the West District of Sierra Leone. Agora, however, did test their blockchain technology by manually recording each ballot (after the result in each ballot box is opened in front of observers in each polling station) onto their blockchain network using a digital device. The results of Agora’s and NEC’s counting were then compared to show how accurate Agora was.[iv]
Leonardo Gammar, the creator of the voting system, stated in an interview that Agora’s test was not yet 100% blockchain. Under current system, voters must undergo several verification processes before receiving a private key, and they were able to vote on any device. Uniquely, during the duration of the election, they can change their vote as many times as they want. So, if a voter was intimidated by another individual directly, he or she can change back their vote when the intimidator leaves.[v] It is unclear if the system utilized differential privacy principal, where it allows data collection as whole to occur and later be analyzed, but preventing it from being traced to each individuals.[vi]
The Potential of Blockchain to Assists Procedural Democracy
It is so unfortunate that the widespread headlines about the “first-ever blockchain election” in Sierra Leone were not accurate. Yet, we still can derive a reflection from the “test drive” conducted by Agora. We must admit that blockchain is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It cannot solve many political literacy issues, such as fake news, black campaigns, human rights violations, money politics, discrimination, racism, and violence. However, blockchain serves democracy at least procedurally. It ensures the voting system is cheaper because the cost for ballot boxes, printed papers, security, distribution, and other expenses can be reduced. It also offers a safer “tallying” process since it prevents dishonest counts committed by riggers, both online and offline. Riggers cannot intentionally miscalculate the vote because the vote is stored online, and hackers cannot attack the system since it is extremely hard to breach.
Blockchain also attracts people who are too busy or reluctant to go to the ballot box. They can be citizens traveling abroad, busy businessmen, senior citizens, people with medical constraints, disabilities, and even those who are too lazy to go outside their homes. Moreover, blockchain calculation will be faster than conventional voting system because it operates digitally. Agora reports in its official statement that their voting result is five days ahead of the NEC and it was extremely close to the official result (0.03-0.42% difference).[vii] Lastly, blockchain attempts to deliver better transparency as the system is open and can be checked. In Sierra Leone, according to Gammar, anonymized votes/ballots (accounted for around 70% of the total votes) were recorded on Agora’s blockchain and publicly available for any party to review, count, and validate.[viii]
Challenges Lie Ahead
Agora’s operation in Sierra Leone—a country with a high illiteracy rate, poor internet network, as well as high rates of violence and corruption—perhaps marks a new beginning of modern day voting system. It also shows promising leads, considering their success in accurately verifying the official conventional-based result. This is an optimistic indication that such method is possible to be developed in other countries in the world, including developing countries with issues in democracy, especially regarding its execution. Nonetheless, a serious commitment must be built by nations who are interested in blockchain elections. The commitment must be realized into adequate infrastructure preparations, including building a better internet network, device procurements, and system management. The preparation is essential notably for rural areas whose basic infrastructure is not sufficient yet. Also, familiarizing the voters with the new voting system can be a challenge, since even operating smartphones can be a problem for some digitally illiterate individuals. Raising political willingness from the elites to hold transparent elections using blockchain is also crucial because some corrupt politicians may benefit from corrupt elections.
Even though blockchain technology’s benefits are most likely to be centered on the procedural aspect of democracy, it does not mean that future development is limited. Sierra Leone is just the beginning. Blockchain has given hope for other developing countries to catch up in terms of democracy and technology—with important terms and conditions, of course.
So, which country is ready for the first-ever blockchain election? And when?
Editors: Atin Prabandari, MA(IR) & Nabeel Khawarizmy Muna, S.IP
[i] Smith, D. (2017). Russian agents hacked US voting system manufacturer before US election – report. The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/05/russia-us-election-hack-voting-system-nsa-report [Accessed 19 March 2018].
[ii] Boucher, P. (2017). How Blockchain Technology Could Change Our Lives. PE 581.948. [online]. European Parliamentary Research Service – Scientific Foresight Unit. p. 12
[iii] Zuckerman, M.J. (2018). Major Canadian Bank Files Patent To Make Credit Scores ‘Transparent’ Via Blockchain. Coin Telegraph [online]. Available at: https://cointelegraph.com/news/major-canadian-bank-files-patent-to-make-credit-scores-transparent-via-blockchain [Accessed 19 March 2018].
[iv] Agora, (2018). Agora Official Statement Regarding Sierra Leone Election. Medium [online]. Available at: https://medium.com/agorablockchain/agora-official-statement-regarding-sierra-leone-election-7730d2d9de4e [Accessed 21 March 2018].
[v] Sputnik (2018). CEO of Swiss Company Explains Prospects of Using Blockchain in Elections. [online] Available at: https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201803171062613638-blockchain-election-sierra-leone/ [Accessed 19 March 2018].
[vi] Dwork., C. and Roth (2014). The Algorithmic Foundations of Differential Privacy. Foundations and Trends in Theoretical Computer Science, Vol. 9, No.. 3–4. pp. 211–407.
[vii] Agora, (2018). Agora Official Statement Regarding Sierra Leone Election. Medium [online]. Available at: https://medium.com/agorablockchain/agora-official-statement-regarding-sierra-leone-election-7730d2d9de4e [Accessed 21 March 2018].
[viii] Biggs, J. (2018). Sierra Leone just ran the first blockchain-based election. [online] Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2018/03/14/sierra-leone-just-ran-the-first-blockchain-based-election/ [Accessed 19 March 2018].