Blockchain and Elections in Africa; What is Possible? — Part One.
Free and fair election is an ideology that drives many democratic governments in the world. For context, many elements form a democratic system and a free and fair electoral process, and leaning toward pluralism is one of them. Others include:
- Access to civil liberties.
- A functional government.
- Promotion of political participation.
- A robust political culture.
To achieve free and fair elections, an electoral commission is set up, with members of the commission declared non-partisan and independent.
Of the 54 countries in Africa, only 20+ practice democracy. Below is a list of their names and their respective electoral commissions:
- Mauritius. It is acclaimed as the only truly democratic country in Africa. Her electoral commissions are The Electoral Boundaries Commission (EBC) and Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC).
- Botswana. Her electoral commission is the Independent Electoral Commission of Botswana (IEC of Botswana).
- Cabo Verde. Her electoral commission is the Assembleia Nacional (National Assembly)
- South Africa. Her electoral commission is the Electoral Commission of South Africa or Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
- Tunisia. Her electoral commission is the Independent High Authority for Elections.
- Ghana. Her electoral commission is the Electoral Commission of Ghana
- Lesotho (flawed): The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)
- Namibia (flawed): The Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN)
- Senegal (hybrid democracy): International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES)
- Madagascar (hybrid): Commission Electorale Nationale Independente pour la Transition (Independent National Electoral Commission for the Transition)
- Malawi (hybrid): Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC)
- Liberia (hybrid): The National Elections Commission (NEC) of the Republic of Liberia
- Kenya (hybrid): Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)
- Tanzania (hybrid): The National Electoral Commission (NEC)
- Morocco (hybrid): International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES)
- Benin (hybrid): Autonomous National Electoral Commission (CENA)
- Zambia (hybrid): Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ)
- Uganda (hybrid): The Electoral Commission of Uganda or Uganda Electoral Commission
- Mali (hybrid): Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI)
- Sierra Leone (hybrid): Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL)
- Gambia (hybrid): Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)
- Nigeria (hybrid): The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)
- Cote d’Ivoire (hybrid): The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)
- Burkina Faso (hybrid): National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI)
- Algeria (hybrid): People’s National Assembly.
Where Blockchain Comes In
The electronic voting system in Africa and in the world can be made truly free and fair when the system is first digitalized and then placed on the blockchain to further true transparency.
While a lot of our lives have moved online, voting by and large still takes place using paper ballots. Amrita Dhillon, Grammateia Kotsialou, Peter McBurney, and Luke Riley write that controversy over the expected surge of mail-in ballots in the US November elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They underscored the need to modernize the mechanics of voting. As such, they argue that blockchain technology can enhance efforts to move to electronic voting by offering greater security and transparency, which may increase needed trust in election systems.
Fears of large-scale manipulation of online votes have kept back progress in making change. Indeed, very few countries use online voting at all, and most of them that do, use some version of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) which require voters to go to a polling booth and show identification before inputting their vote on the EVM. There are obvious advantages to EVMs. The speed of counting, especially in large countries like India and Brazil, has made EVMs a necessity and an important cost-saving measure. By contrast, many mature democracies have not embraced online voting, due to fears of hacking and fraud. Some countries have actively discontinued their use (e.g. the Netherlands in 2005). Indeed, Estonia is one of the few countries that has successfully run its elections electronically but with a full paper ballot backup. Estonian citizens can also cast their vote physically in the polling booth, and, if they do, the paper ballot supersedes any electronic vote they may have cast.
In examining the potential roles of the Blockchain in Africa’s electoral processes, Blockchain would be described as a type of distributed ledger technology (DLT) — a shared ledger (file/database) of records or transactions that is open to inspection by every participant and is not subject to any form of central control. Bitcoin is the most famous example of a blockchain application.
A blockchain is distinguished by the rules it follows if ledgers do not tally, or if inconsistencies arise. The technology stores information sequentially in “blocks” in an ordered chain, with “validators” (those who have appropriate rights in the shared ledger) verifying and storing each transaction. Nothing in the verified record of the transaction can be altered, and the system offers a fully auditable history of all transactions. The above is a preview of the first advantage of Blockchain we will come to consider in this article.
Verification of Voter’s Votes
Blockchain technology will allow voters to verify that their votes are counted and that the votes are recorded correctly without compromising their own anonymity. Moreover, anyone will be able to check that the counting was done correctly without compromising the secrecy of the ballots. While a single authority oversees the current centralized system of voting in its elections, it will be possible to distribute control of the election among several trustees, which might increase voters’ faith in the results.
Decentralizing Validation of Electoral Information
The premise of blockchain technology is that decentralizing the validation of information among multiple authorities makes it much more challenging to manipulate elections. In essence, the fact that every vote needs to pass the scrutiny of several validators in the network increases the cost (and decreases the likelihood) of electoral fraud. Indeed, a large number of election stakeholders would need to work together for fraud to occur.
Proper Monitoring of Voting Processes
As an off-shoot of the above, a blockchain-based system can allow independent vote-monitoring bodies to audit the vote counting and codes used to ensure that the system is free from fraud — something that current centralized systems do not offer. Blockchains can be incorporated into the voting architecture right from the stage of electoral registration to vote storage and vote counting. At each stage, they prevent a single agent from making changes without agreement among a specified subset of the entire network of allowed validators (nodes). The downside of these additional security checks is the cost of running additional servers.
Validity of Casted Votes
Again, the blockchain cannot solve all the possible types of election fraud as a network of authorized validators cannot check whether votes come from genuine users, but it can check other key concerns such as:
- That the vote is technically valid;
- That no double counting occurs;
- That the vote comes from an authorized place.
In Estonia, for example, voters can cast their votes from anywhere in the world using an identity card with a computer-readable microchip; yet there is still no guarantee that the entry point (i.e. the computer the voter uses) is free from malware.
The benefits of a successful secure and transparent online voting system are clear. Such a system would do away with the issues of postal ballots being delayed, waylaid, or lost en route. It would reduce the time needed to count votes, and allow for a much higher level of accessibility to the system, and therefore higher de facto enfranchisement. Finally, new and better voting rules can be implemented. For example, voters can securely delegate votes to more informed friends in referendums. It is also possible to develop voting rules that allow multiple votes and incentivize more informed voters to use those votes. The blockchain allows a secure design of such new voting rules.
The blockchain can do nothing to prevent misinformation or fake news from affecting voters in important elections. But, it could go a long way in ensuring the issues that the world faces right now in terms of boosting the integrity of the election authorities and voting processes.
With the development of a scalable blockchain-based system, there need be no concerns about votes being deliberately delayed, or about the non-verifiability of votes in existing electronic voting systems. At least some of the challenges facing e-voting — maintaining records securely, and ensuring audibility and transparency — can be solved. Better systems are certainly possible. So, what is holding back greater investment into more research for the design of secure online voting systems? The integrity of elections is the single most important activity for democratic governments. To reflect the numerous advantages achievable under the Blockchain, more research in this field is advisable and above all, the application of research results to make the difference that the electorate desires would play a great role in achieving a truly democratic government that reflects the will and the choice of the people.
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