Sierra Leone's electoral commission distances itself from use of blockchain during polls

Sierra Leone’s electoral commission has denied that blockchain technology was used during the country’s 7 March elections. A Swiss-based group called Agora had said that it used technology similar to that behind the BitCoin cryptocurrency to provide a partial tally of election results. Some press reports had lauded Sierra Leone’s election as the ‘world’s first blockchain-powered elections’.

Election officials count ballot papers at a polling station in Freetown, 7 March 2018.
Election officials count ballot papers at a polling station in Freetown, 7 March 2018. Photo: AFP/Issouf Sanogo

"The NEC [National Electoral Commission] has not used and is not using blockchain technology in any part of the electoral process,” Mohamed Conteh, head of the NEC, said in a tweet on Sunday.

Blockchain technology emerged with the creation of Bitcoin and is a digital ledger of records much like a traditional database, except that it is encrypted and stored across several computers.

A report on the Quartz website, that has since been updated, had described it as a “global landmark”, saying that “votes cast were manually recorded by Agora”.

The CoinDesk website, which is popular among cryptocurrency enthusiasts, said that Agora was providing “unprecedented insight” into voting. The headline for its article dated 8 March, one day after Sierra Leoneans went to the polls read, “Sierra Leone secretly holds first blockchain-powered presidential vote”.

RFI reported on the story. It confirmed with the country’s electoral commission that Agora had only been afforded observer status for the polls. Furthermore, Agora’s involvement was unofficial, it only carried out tallying in two districts and its results differed from the official results as announced by the NEC.

Agora’s claims and unverified reports in the media have been met with some consternation amongst Sierra Leoneans who have been following the polls.

“What concerns me is the hype that followed what they did,” Morris Marah, founder of Sensi Innovation Hub in Freetown, told RFI.

“Some articles, for example, one we saw on Businessinsider said, ‘Sierra Leoneans vote using blockchain,’” said Marah, referring to an article that referenced other unverified media reports. “It was misleading,” he added.

Tamba Lamin, technical architect for the Sierra Leone Open Election Data Platform, wrote a blog post describing Agora’s claims as “fake news” that were “misleading”.

“Agora is claiming undue credit for doing nothing that helped the people of Sierra Leone,” Lamin wrote on Medium. “As Sierra Leoneans, we find this unethical and insulting to the people of this country.”

Leonardo Gammar, Agora’s chief executive officer, in an interview with RFI, set out his vision for the technology his company developed. He described Sierra Leone’s elections as a “use case” not the “full implementation” of their e-voting system.

Nevertheless, Sierra Leonean tech experts also cast doubt on the usefulness of Agora’s system.

“I don’t really see what the innovation is,” said Marah, whose Sensi Innovation Hub aims to provide a co-working space for technologists and entrepreneurs.

“There was another group that was basically using WordPress and spreadsheet to publish the results,” he added, making a comparison with Agora’s system and that of a website content management system used alongside software such as Microsoft Excel.

“Their involvement in all of the result tallying was very limited,” said Marah, describing their status as observers as similar to a media house that could carry out a compilation process and publish unofficial results.

“It would be like me showing up to the UK election with my computer and saying, ‘let me enter your counting room, let me plug-in and count your results,’” said Marah, who’s involved in the Sierra Leone Decides project.

Agora’s results for the two districts they tallied differed considerably from the official results, according to an analysis of the two sets of statistics carried out by RFI.

The difference was due to different standards of what Agora deemed acceptable in terms of spoilt or invalid ballots, Agora’s CEO Gammar told RFI in an email.

Additionally, Agora did not provide a blockchain explorer to make the workings of this system open and transparent. For cryptocurrencies, such as BitCoin or Ether, a blockchain explorer is a common way of displaying the transactions carried out on the network. However, this was absent from Agora’s website.

The website for Agora also boasted partners such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the University of Fribourg, the Geneva Diplomatic Circle and Fribourg State.

A spokesperson for ICRC told RFI that "we don't (and never had) any partnership with Agora".

The Fribourg Development Agency said it is "in contact with the Agora Foundation to evaluate blockchain technology for different applications".

The University of Fribourg said that it "currently holds no partnership with Agora", adding that it has been "discussing and analysing a possible future cooperation, but with no concrete result so far".

Agora received no “outside funding”, according to Chief Operating Officer Jaron Lukasiewicz, although it is “process of closing an outside capital investment unrelated to the election”, he said in comments via email.

“What these guys [Agora] are saying is great,” said Marah, saying that he’s not necessarily pessimistic about the use of blockchain technology. “But they haven’t really tested it because they basically took a paper card of the results and put it on their system. That’s what everybody else is doing, that’s not new,” he added.

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