Blockchain has vast potential beyond powering cryptocurrencies. Decentralized blockchain networks and immutable ledgers can serve as a foundation for new trusted systems, redefining how we interact with an evolving digital world. One of the most fascinating applications of blockchain technology is also one of its most controversial: voting.
In the wake of high-profile hacks, there’s been a bright spotlight on election software security and electronic voting machines (EVMs). Blockchain has been floated as a solution for several years, in theory providing a transparent and trusted medium for entering and recording votes—free of election-rigging and vote tampering allegations—where all parties can trust and verify the results. Until now, we’ve been dealing largely in proof-of-concepts and pilots in countries like Denmark and Estonia when it comes to secure, tamper-proof blockchain-based voting.
That all changed this month in Sierra Leone.
The African nation is in the midst of landmark presidential elections to replace outgoing president Ernest Bai Koroma. In the most populous Western District of the country, a Swiss voting tech company called Agora has manually inputted upwards of 400,000 ballots on its permissioned, blockchain-based voting system.
The election itself is tightly contested and may enter a second round as a result of a run-off, but Agora has released the initial aggregated results of its blockchain-based voting in the Western District. According to CoinDesk, Agora had a team of 280 accredited observers in polling stations across the region entering results to compare with the official count from Sierra Leone’s National Election Committee (NEC). The company was accredited by the NEC to do a study in that particular region. The NEC results are the official ones, but Agora’s system is the first blockchain voting system employed on this wide a scale in a national election.
It’s a worthy test of the technology, as Sierra Leone’s national elections include more than 16 candidates who earned more than 2 percent of the recorded votes. Agora’s results broke down votes not only by candidate, but also by urban and rural areas as well as specific polling locations. The two frontrunners are foreign minister Samura Kamara and opposition party leader Julius Maada Bio, who earned 54.7 and 32.5 percent of the blockchain-based ballot, respectively.
Agora’s results show how blockchain-based voting systems can not only provide transparent results, but supply election committees with detailed voting breakdowns and data as well. The startup’s blockchain architecture copies its ledger data to the Bitcoin blockchain to ensure the immutable security of voting results.
CEO Leonardo Gammar told Quartz he hopes the results from Sierra Leone will help Agora expand its blockchain voting systems around the world. Other startups like Polys and Voatz are aiming to do the same. This first digital balloting process was done manually, but blockchain-based voting systems are designed to power future elections where citizens can validate their identity and cast votes in a completely automated system.
The idea is to create a voting process that’s decentralized to prevent hacking, transparent and auditable to reduce controversy and violence, and also cheaper to save governments money on expensive voting technology. We’re a long way from completely automated, immutable digital elections, but Agora’s blockchain voting in Sierra Leone shows we’re not as far away from decentralized democracy as we may have thought.