First Results of Sierra Leone's Blockchain Vote Are In

The early returns of the first ever presidential election tracked on a blockchain are in, but some problems not even distributed ledgers can solve.

AccessTimeIconMar 10, 2018 at 11:30 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:40 a.m. UTC
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Blockchain startup Agora has published what appears to be the earliest results for the hotly contested Sierra Leone election, the first presidential vote tracked using the technology.

After the voting concluded on Wednesday, as many as 400,000 ballots were manually inputted into Agora's blockchain system by a team of 280 accredited observers working in as many locations.

Currently, the exact number of votes for each candidate aren't being revealed to the public, just the percentages. But Agora, a Switzerland-based foundation, said it plans to make the results auditable in a public format in the coming days.

While this is a milestone for distributed ledger technology, the messy circumstances surrounding the election, not to mention the limited scope of Agora's work, show how far blockchain is from reaching its theoretical potential for voting.

For one thing, Agora, which was accredited by Sierra Leone's National Election Committee (NEC), didn't count all the ballots, just those cast in the country's most populous district, where the capital city, Freetown, is located. The NEC's tally is the official one; Agora, like other accredited observers, is providing an independent count for comparison.

"These are the final results from Agora to the Western area," said Agora's CEO, Leonardo Gammar. "The NEC is going to have its own results. Other observers are going to have their own results."

Further, public blockchain purists may have trouble relying on Agora's count. Some of the technology developed by Agora that grants node operators access is currently patent-pending, Gammar said, so there won't be a fully open-source repository on Github for outsiders to inspect.

However, future elections are expected to use the full stack of the company's technology and will be more fully auditable via integration with a public blockchain.

Going forward, Gammar says that by further closing off the opportunities for fraud, and expanding the zones tracked by auditable blockchain software, additional uncertainty about any number of elections held around the world could be removed.

"We were accredited by the NEC to do this, to do a study in the Western area," he said, adding:

"If they like how it work, if they're happy with everything, they'll make it wider next time, and they'll back us more and more."

Early returns

The results from Agora's sample showed the incumbent party candidate Samura Kamara, of the All People's Congress, with a 12 point lead.

But as the official results from NEC aren't expected to be announced until Friday night at the earliest. And the wait could be even longer, given complicating factors that can't be solved by a blockchain.

Sierra Leone Agora results
Sierra Leone Agora results

For example, the Sierra Leone police earlier this week reportedly raided the office of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), whose candidate came in second place in Agora's tally.

While the official reason for the raid was because the police suspected an election hack was underway, party leaders alleged it was an effort to undermine the opposition.

In spite of these setbacks, the NEC reported that only about 0.2 percent of the election boxes used were "problematic," falling in line with a statement made Friday by the European Union Election Observation mission that described the elections as "well organized."

"While the tallying is still ongoing and should be finalised in full transparency, the EU expects all parties to respect credible electoral results and to use existing mechanisms to address grievances," according to the statement.

Kamara won the western district by 54.7 percent in Agora's count, just shy of the 55 percent constitutionally required to win a national election. So if the national results are similar, he may face a runoff against the SLPP's Julius Bio, who got 32.5 percent of the votes according to the above partial blockchain tally.

Agora "should repeat this task in the runoff, as it looks like there will be one," said political risk analyst and Sierra Leone native Abdul Deensie, a former fellow of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Images courtesy of Agora


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