How Blockchain can transform democracy in Africa
By Robert Pyke, Aziza Project CEO
I’ve been leading the Aziza Project for six months and in this period I have become converted to the transformational potential that blockchain technology could unleash. Whilst Bitcoin and trading of cryptocurrencies receives huge attention I’m keen to highlight some of the practical implications blockchain can have and its role in transforming Africa.
The focus of this article is on democracy and voting. But first an explanation of what blockchain technology is. Blockchain is a list of records, a ledger, that is decentralised i.e. held on hundreds or thousands of computers where data is immutable, it cannot be altered after it has been created. The technology allows transactions to be added to the ledger without the need for an intermediary or central administration, transactions get validated and are then added on to hundreds or thousands of computers also known as a distributed ledger. This allows parties who don’t know or trust each other to form and maintain consensus about the existence, status and evolution of a set of shared facts.
So how can blockchain impact on voting. Well, in parts of Africa there are major challenges with voting. Voters can be subject to intimidation when they cast their votes and there is the risk of retribution if they can’t trust the state to provide systems that will protect their identity after they have voted. That assumes ballot boxes have arrived on time and that the votes cast are (accurately) counted. The combined effect of these problems reduces the incentive to vote, results may not represent the true consensus and corrupt regimes remain in power.
Africa has a history of disputed election results. Disputes over electoral results have resulted in violence and lives lost in disputes from Gabon (2016) to Ivory Coast (2011) and Kenya (2007). Against such a backdrop, countries are looking to technology to improve the voting process. The use of electronic voting machines is being pursued in the Democratic Republic of Congo but comes with significant practical and logistical challenges. It’s reported that 600,000 voting assistants will need to be trained to support the 46m strong population in voting using their new machines, across an area five times bigger than Germany, with hundreds of languages and dialects. This assumes the machines work first time, cannot be hacked and provide the trust that is currently lacking.
In March this year Sierra Leone received a fair amount of publicity about a vote that had been “blockchain-powered”. Unfortunately, this was inaccurate. Agora, a Swiss company with a proprietary blockchain-based voting system, was one of the “accredited observers” at the election providing an independent vote count for comparison to the main tally in one of the country’s most populous districts. It did generate publicity for the company, but it wasn’t a blockchain voting example.
What is encouraging is that Agora and other businesses like Horizon State are building the blockchain technology solutions that will allow individuals to vote in a safe environment, free from intimidation, with their identity kept confidential and assured in the knowledge that their vote will not be adjusted. The core foundations of the blockchain: anonymity, security, and immutability are perfectly matched to voting platforms.
There remain practical challenges to overcome. There needs to be identity verification before an individual can vote, if votes are being cast from an electronic device there will be a proportion of the population who need an alternative. And there will remain a battle to ensure people trust the technology, just because it’s said that the blockchain is immutable doesn’t mean everybody will believe it!
The practicalities of voting on the blockchain are appealing. It’s offers the ability to run elections at low cost, saving on paper ballot, hiring locations, security, etc. and improved voter convenience with real time results. This has appeal across the world, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland have all been in the press making statements about investigating blockchain powered solutions for future elections.
And although a government vote via blockchain has not happened yet, the application of voting solutions goes further than national governments. The Africa Leadership Academy, a two-year pre-university programme geared at young leaders aged 16-19 from across Africa built and ran their student government elections on blockchain. They wrote their smart contract on solidity and thereafter the system ran automatically, opening at 7am, closing at 6pm and immediately releasing the results. Teenagers like this make me feel optimistic for the future!
In conclusion, although not a panacea, I’m of the opinion blockchain will become the standard backbone of electoral and voting systems in the next five to ten years. Practically it may be used in combination with alternative voting arrangements (as for example individuals in the UK can vote by post or in person) but where most of a voting population have access to the internet it feels like a natural and sensible step forward.
A bigger challenge will be to engender trust in whatever blockchain solution is used, it will likely require the backing of a company or brand that can execute reputable elections elsewhere in the world as much as the underpinning blockchain technology.