Behind the scenes of Sierra Leone's presidential election Wednesday, a second, perhaps larger milestone was quietly achieved.
As voters in the nation's most populous Western District lined up to cast votes in what had been a heated campaign between 16 candidates, unbeknownst to them, blockchain voting startup Agora was helping keep track of it all, and through its proprietary distributed ledger, providing unprecedented insight into the process.
In what, by all accounts, appears to be a world's first for the emerging technology, Agora, accredited by Sierra Leone's National Election Committee used a private, permissioned blockchain - one inspired by the technology that backs bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies - to oversee the results of a national election in real time. It then relayed the data to individuals entrusted to oversee and verify the nation's democratic process.
However, for Agora, the elections could be step one in an even larger plan to launch a more decentralized version of its technology, and the startup boasts that it's already in conversations with a number of other nations interested in hosting future elections.
Indeed, as even such stalwarts of democracy as the U.S. have proven their susceptibility to elections fraud, the Sierra Leone election - exactly because it was so hotly contested - could prove to be a landmark of sorts, if blockchain can overcome just a few more hurdles.
"You're looking at a country that you probably wouldn't normally expect to be the first to use transparent voting tech," said Agora's newly appointed COO, Jaron Lukasiewicz, who previously founded Coinsetter.
He told CoinDesk:
"A country like Sierra Leone can ultimately minimize a lot of the fall-out of a highly contentious election by using software like this."
A long way to go
But while the voting may be over, the test for blockchain is, in some ways, just beginning.
As this article was being completed, Agora, a Switzerland-based foundation, was in the process of manually counting the votes and logging them on a blockchain.
"Voters complete their votes on paper ballots and then our team with impartial observers register them on the blockchain," explained Lukasiewicz, who formally joined the foundation in January after first joining as an advisor.
Stepping back, though, not only is this the first time blockchain has been implemented in a national election, it's also the first live implementation for Agora's stack of blockchain services - what the foundation calls "skipchain" technology, designed to reach consensus with each node only seeing part of the blockchain.
The lowest level of the stack consists of "write-permissioned" nodes operated by Agora and third-party witnesses, Red Cross, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Freiburg, as well as "read-only" nodes that let anyone observe the data.
And while the act of counting votes certainly introduces a number opportunities for fraud, Agora CEO Leonardo Gammar was on-location to help manage the operation as voter IDs were checked against Sierra Leone's National Electoral Committee's voter registration list. Future implementations, he said, may be even further decentralized by logging some data on the bitcoin blockchain.
According to Gammar, the firm is in conversations with multiple other nations in Africa and Europe and is pursuing a business model where they aim to provide their customers a 70 percent discount on their current cost.
"It has been incredible to play a role in helping Sierra Leone's citizens exercise their democratic rights, and to help their country maintain a transparent democracy," Gammar said, adding:
"I strongly believe that this election is the beginning of a much larger blockchain voting movement."
Kind of peaceful
On a more skeptical note, the election took place within context that transcends tech.
Viewed by one Sierra Leone native and current political risk analyst, the election was little better - or worse - than any of the previous three general elections. Blockchain or no blockchain, he finds little has changed since the end of a bloody civil war that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 50,000 citizens.
Abdul Deensie, who was born in Sierra Leone, left in 1997, five years before the civil war had ended. Eventually, he joined as a fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and got a job at USAID, an independent agency that administers federal aid around the world.
Now, Deensie has been corresponding with several "sources on the ground" in Sierra Leone, as well as watching social media and news broadcasts closely, and he says that little he's seeing about the election process has changed.
Skeptically, Deensie pointed to Sierra Leone's "control of corruption" score, an annual rating of nations determined via a number of indicators, as something that was perhaps more important than the use of a novel technology.
Citing a history of failing scores in this category (this year Sierra Leone's government rated worse than half the governments measured) and scattered reports of intimidation, he concluded ambivalently:
"The election itself, I believe, beside these little skirmishes, we can give it a pass as free and fair."
But according to Lukasiewicz, such skepticism was exactly what led the government to approach his foundation in the first place.
While Sierra Leone does have a history of largely peaceful general elections since its civil war, a number of violent incidents were reported in the days leading up to the event.
Further doubt was cast on the integrity of the leading All People's Congress (APC) party, when the nation's Accountant General found a reported $5.7 million in aid money had gone missing, leading to accusations of fraud and corruption.
Facing such concerns about the reliability of the election, national authorities implemented military support provisions that placed police in the streets, and the national electoral commission has been posting updates on its blog about difficulties with the voting process.
Still, Lukasiewicz said the current Sierra Leone government wanted to create an extra layer of transparency by using Agora's blockchain technology. In total, 17,745 sealed voting boxes were used, with 37 exhibiting various problems, according to the commission's site.
"We're coming in with fully auditable code, fully auditable voting processes," Lukasiewicz said.
"We're really bringing something to the table where a voter themselves can audit the election."
Editor's Note: This article's headline has been changed to reflect that the election was audited by the Agora's technology.
Sierra Leone voting image via Shutterstock