Sierra Leone Holds World's First "Free And Fair" Blockchain-Backed Election

Cryptocurrency investors have endured a difficult week as reports that Japanese regulators are cracking down on local exchanges following a massive heist at CoinCheck - an unregistered local exchange - and the SEC is demanding that US-based cryptocurrency exchanges register with the agency, sent virtual currency prices reeling, eventually pushing bitcoin to a multiweek low on Friday below $9,000.

Bitcoin

But in the world of blockchain technology, where even crypto skeptics like Jamie Dimon (who now regrets calling BTC a fraud) and Ray Dalio see a promising future, it was truly the best of times. Earlier this week, the town of South Burlington, Vermont became the first town in the US to record a real estate transaction by registering the deed transfer on a blockchain-based system.

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And in another triumph, the first national election to be tracked and verified using blockchain technology unfolded in Sierra Leone this week. The votes are still being tallied, but blockchain voting startup Agora is supervising the first beta test of its vote-monitoring blockchain tech, as Coindesk reported.

As voters 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 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.

Of course, the technology is still very rudimentary, and required Agora employees to physically verify paper ballots before accurately entering their content into the company’s blockchain database.

The company’s tech - which it calls “skipchain” - is what’s known as a “permissioned” blockchain - where only some of the data being entered into the database is visible to the public (in this case, the names and personal information of the voters will remain hidden, while the results of the vote and all non-personal associated metadata should be available for all to see).

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 company 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 company calls "skipchain" technology, designed to reach consensus with each node only seeing part of the blockchain.

In some respects, Sierra Leone had a number of advantages that made Agora’s beta testing feasible. For instance, since the end of its civil war in 2002, the country has conducted a number of largely “free and fair” elections. But this year’s vote was also fraught with complications that are still being worked out. Several episodes of political violence preceded the ballot, and already, before the official vote tally has even been released, two opposition parties are expressing “grave concerns” about the fairness of this year’s vote, per Africa News. The Coalition for Change and National Grand Coalition told AN  that their agents were evicted from some polling stations when the counting of votes started…

But in its preliminary report, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, noted that while the election was largely peaceful, free and fair, there were some issues, including the heavy presence of security at polling stations that reportedly intimidated some reporters.

In summary, the blockchain-backed vote is a first and important step toward deploying a seamless system of balloting on the blockchain that would allow voters to record their choices directly onto Agora’s blockchain, without the paper intermediary. And with a handful of other African states interested in working with Agora for future elections, that day might arrive sooner than some skeptics expect.

For those who are still unfamiliar with how the technology works, this two-minute explanation could offer some insight.