Could blockchain technology be the key to ensuring the integrity of the democratic process? A recent blockchain project aiming to replace cumbersome voting technology around the world got its first test in this month’s presidential election in Sierra Leone. Though the experiment had a shaky debut, amid accusations that the role of the technology was exaggerated, its potential benefits are impressive and it seems clear that we can expect to see plenty of future elections using blockchain.
Representatives from the Switzerland-based project, called Agora, served as outside observers at some polling sites for the election, which was conducted using the country’s traditional paper ballots. Along with other observer groups, Agora representatives were shown the cast ballots. They used their equipment to record the votes to Agora’s proprietary blockchain, without voters needing to do any additional work, says Agora CEO Leonardo Gammar.
“Nothing changed for them–they just go to the polling station and they put their votes in the boxes,” he says. “They vote with their fingerprints–they put their fingerprints next to the photos of their candidates.”
But the experiment made for an unintentionally rocky public debut, after headlines from international blockchain and tech publications appeared to exaggerate the role that Agora’s software played in the election. Those initial stories and subsequent updates, coming at a time when tech startups and blockchain projects are facing increased skepticism around the world, gave the impression of a Western tech startup using the African nation’s election for its own benefit.
Sierra Leone’s National Electoral Commission posted a tweet emphasizing that it counts votes using its own database, based on Microsoft technology, not blockchain. And Tamba Lamin, the CEO of Lam-Tech, a Sierra Leone IT company developing its own open source election platform, denounced the Agora coverage as “fake news” in a Medium post. “Agora is claiming undue credit for doing nothing that helped the people of Sierra Leone,” he wrote.
— National Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (@NECsalone) March 19, 2018
Amadu Massally, Lam-Tech COO and a Sierra Leone civil society activist, expressed similar concerns in a phone interview with Fast Company.
“First of all, we are not necessarily against blockchain technology, but we do feel like what Agora did was not truly represented, at least in their headlines,” he says. “We’d like for all others to be aware that we should not be capitalizing on poor nations to meet our organizational or self interests.”
In a recent Medium post, Agora denied misrepresenting its role in the election.
“Sensational headlines have become a ‘norm’ of the internet, and we agree that both companies and media outlets have a responsibility to cover events accurately,” according to the post. “This was Agora’s first major media event, and we are creating internal policies to further support this goal in the future.”
How It Works
Gammar says the Agora team hopes to participate in other elections in the near future and to continue building out its software platform. In the future, voters could be able to cast votes directly to the Agora system, potentially even using their own personal devices. People taking part in elections, whether they were political votes, shareholder meetings or union elections, could sign in by showing identification through a webcam, receive digital security keys to authenticate their ballots, and pick their candidates with the touch of a button.
Those ballots would be anonymized, encrypted and submitted to Agora’s network, using mathematical functions that would let auditors confirm individual votes were preserved without being able to detect how people voted, according to an Agora white paper. Agora plans to make its software open source, which Gammar says would be an improvement over common proprietary digital voting tools, often faulted for security flaws. “I don’t think anyone should trust black boxes,” he says.
Agora’s blockchain implementation doesn’t rely on a bitcoin-style mining system for security, since access to the chain is limited to Agora personnel and election officials and authorized auditors, and other properties of the underlying algorithms also help make it more energy efficient than cryptocurrency blockchains, Gammar says.
The digital process could even be cheaper, logistically simpler and more tamper-proof than printing, storing and transporting paper ballots, he says. Sealing envelopes and transporting materials made up 40% of the cost of France’s 2012 national elections, according to the Agora white paper. And digital votes are naturally faster to tally than those cast on paper, Gammar says.
Still, some elections experts are skeptical of any blockchain-based voting system. Marian K. Schneider, president of the U.S. election transparency nonprofit Verified Voting, says the group advocates paper ballots, marked by hand, not any kind of digital voting.
“We do not think that blockchain is the answer to the complicated questions that are presented by voting,” she says.
Paper ballots can already be scanned electronically to quickly generate results, but they can also be audited as needed if any questions arise. Nor, she says, does blockchain solve questions of authenticating voters or distributing results. Voting with internet-connected devices also raises issues of potential malware or denial of service attacks, she says.
“If there are voters who using their own devices, then there is also malware and other things that might reside on their own computers,” she says.
In its white paper, Agora proposes some potential ways to verify that voting devices are behaving properly, including having devices show authentication codes distributed through the mail to voters and enabling voters to essentially cast test ballots and view them on anther device, verifying they weren’t tampered with.
“Once encryption has been audited, a real ballot can then be cast,” according to the white paper. “If Cast-or-Challenge validation is performed by a sufficiently large number of voters and auditors, the integrity of the vote casting step is ensured with high probability.”
Agora is currently funded by its founders, and Gammar says he plans to be transparent about any future sources of investment. Ultimately, fees for managing elections could pay the bills.
“We really want to be as transparent as our solution is,” he says. “We’re going to provide the list of who funded us with how much so everyone is aware of who did that and what.”