What you’ll learn in this article

  • How blockchain can improve elections, and real-world examples
  • The latest research on blockchain voting
  • Key takeaways from the Voatz controversy
  • Challenges for blockchain voting in Africa and democracies around the world

In today’s world, claims of electoral interference and manipulation have caused great mistrust towards many governments. Allegations of voting fraud have been particularly prevalent under dictatorial regimes in Africa. Across the continent, centralized control of the voting process may be part of the problem and in fact, arguably may have caused more harm than good. In light of all these problems, it is worth asking: Could blockchain offer a technical solution to the political skulduggery of vote-rigging and electoral fraud?

The very idea of a transparent and decentralized voting system that would make elections easier to administer and harder to corrupt is a tantalizing one for Africa as well as other regions. 

In 2018, Sierra Leone received extensive global attention after the country reportedly used blockchain to power its recent presidential elections, though the country’s electoral commission later clarified the limited extent to which the technology was used. More recently, India announced it was developing a new blockchain voting system, to allow citizens to cast votes from outside their city of registration. 

But experts caution that the technical requirements for blockchain voting have not yet been perfected and many problems remain to be worked out.

Sierra Leone marked a peaceful transfer of power from a ruling party to the opposition on March 31, 2018. Photo by: Carol Sahley/USAID

Blockchain’s uses for voting

Blockchain seems ideally suited in many ways for improving elections. In theory, distributed ledger technology presents Africa and the rest of the world with enormous possibilities for safeguarding ballots, guaranteeing the authenticity of every vote cast and making sure the vote count is accurate. Here are some of its most attractive features:

  • The ledger holds different copies in several locations and therefore has no single point of failure or vulnerability for hacking or attack.
  • It possesses a distributed control over who can attach a new transaction in the ledger. In voting, this means that if all encoded conditions are met, eligible voters can cast their vote without needing a third party or electoral body to verify votes.
  • It is an immutable system, as the creation of subsequent blocks must make reference to the previously existing one. This would make vote tallies tamper-proof and solve problems such as double voting or vote-rigging.

A recent study on blockchain voting in Africa faults the “centralized architecture” of its elections as a primary reason why the voting process is easily corrupted and invalidated, and that the solution may lie in decentralization. 

“ A blockchain electoral voting system will eliminate most of the challenges faced by African nations in conducting a free, fair and transparent election with low cost and total security,” according to the January 2020 report by researchers associated with the computer science department at Noida International University in India. “The issue of election rigging is almost completely eradicated with this technology (if properly installed). An attempt to alter/manipulate records (votes) in the system’s database can be spotted easily, because of its rigorous consensus rules, such an attempt is considered void and denied permission to access, alter, or destroy any of the previously saved votes.”

The Noida report calls on African nations to “tap from [blockchain] and build a reliable, secure, and convenient electoral voting system.” They also cite blockchain’s encryption as well as smart contracts as ways to provide greater security for a digital ballot box. 

However, smart contracts can be fraught with bugs. Hosho, a professional auditing company, has reviewed smart contracts projects worth up to  $1 billion. The auditors found that at least one in every four smart contracts have bugs that would prove critical, and that 60% of the smart contracts have at least one security issue.

Voting in progress at Presidential election March 28 in Abuja – photo by U.S. Embassy / Idika Onyukwu

Challenges particular to Africa

Modern Africa has numerous problems that have eaten deep into the core of its electoral system. Two stand out as posing the greatest threat to democracy and voter safety. 

Rigging: The problem of vote-rigging has been around for a long time. Authoritarian regimes in Africa and elsewhere hold elections and manipulate them every step of the way. We also see that electoral fraud and manipulation take a variety of forms, with increasingly sophisticated methods being employed before polling stations even open. Allegations abound that the most recent election in Nigeria was rigged. National elections in Uganda and Congo have also been consumed by accusations of widespread fraud and voter intimidation. The number of African countries tarred by controversy over its national elections is so large that an incomplete list still includes over half of the continent’s 54 nations. The cumulative effect of vote-rigging in African elections over the years has damaged the franchise of its citizens and defeats the purpose of democracy. Unfortunately, up until now, corrupt regimes often get away with electoral fraud and manipulation. 

See related article: How bitcoin is helping African migrant workers and their families save money

Vote-rigging is not a new problem and not unique to Africa. But corrupting even a single election can have long-term consequences in a country’s future. The 1946 election in Romania was heavily rigged, and its ripple effects still linger till today. The communists took over Romania and abolished the multi-party system to gain complete control of the country. These instances of controversial elections such as this could all have been avoided if the counting process was fair, transparent and verifiable.

Nimit Sawhney, the co-founder of Voatz, a blockchain-based voting company, has described the need to protect the sanctity of voting, citing  India in 1984 — after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — as a horrific example:

“Our families were targeted,” said Sawhney, in a Techcrunch video. “A lot of people were killed. Soon after there were elections. Some things we saw as little kids were very shocking. Just the picture of somebody forcing you to vote at gunpoint.”

The current ballot system in Africa offers anonymity to the voter but the counting process, in most cases, is not transparent. In an ideal situation, there should be trust in results between the people and the election commission or government body. Other major problems such as voter fraud and ballot stuffing also make it more difficult for elections organizers and monitors to verify the authenticity of votes.

Violence: In Africa, incumbents often show an unwillingness to leave positions of power. This creates political tension and a volatile atmosphere that sometimes spark off into full-blown violence, especially during elections. 

There is no electoral integrity when the threat of violence puts the lives of voters at risk. A recent study using data from more than 50 African elections, between 2011 to 2017, showed that almost all these elections exploded in violence at some stage of the poll. The study identifies three main causes of Africa electoral violence. Two causes are political or sociological — voter intimidation by the political party in power, and the conflicts that escalate into violence when an election is highly competitive and results expected to be close. The third is when voters perceive electoral fraud, and their anger erupts in violent acts.  

While blockchain won’t be able to stop autocrats from attempting to hold onto power through violent means, the technology could help improve voter safety by allowing them to vote in hiding and stay away from public polling areas where they could be harmed. The immutability of blockchain vote counting could also help foster voter trust in the electoral system and promote peaceful acceptance of elections results. 

Voatz is a mobile elections platform with the goal of making it safe and easy to vote from anywhere. But two recent reports found its technology riddled with problems. Photo by: Voatz

The difficulty in digitizing electoral processes

Despite the promises that blockchain voting holds for transforming elections, the technology is still in its infancy and experiencing growing pains.

Voatz, the mobile blockchain voting company headquartered in Boston, came under heat recently, when two separate studies found its technology was riddled with problems. Its blockchain voting system has already been used in a handful of local elections across the United States in Oregon, Colorado, Utah and West Virginia. However, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that, aside from privacy issues, Voatz had “vulnerabilities that allow different kinds of adversaries to alter, stop, or expose a user’s vote, including a side-channel attack in which a completely passive network adversary can potentially recover a user’s secret ballot.”

Jonathan Johnson, CEO of Overstock and president of Medici Ventures, a subsidiary that has invested in Voatz, defended the blockchain app:

“We believe that the Voatz technology is responsible and safe; it not only prevents voting fraud, but it also protects the privacy of each voter,” Johnson said, in a statement. “The Voatz app even generates a paper ballot that can be audited to guarantee the fidelity of the vote. This is, we believe, the right path forward to safe innovation in election technology. We should not let ourselves derail the future of voting.”

However, a second study — a third-party audit for Voatz and major financial backer Tusk Philanthropies — found 79 problems with the app, including issues with data verification and security controls. 

“We join other researchers in remaining skeptical of the security provided by blockchain-based solutions to voting, and believe that this serves as an object lesson in security — that the purported use of a series of tools does not indicate that a solution provides any real guarantees of security,” the MIT researchers concluded. “It remains unclear if any electronic-only mobile or Internet voting system can practically overcome the stringent security requirements on election systems.”

USAID in Sierra Leone during their 2018 elections. Photo by:Carol Sahley/USAID

Are we there yet?

Skepticisms aside, the search for a better way to vote continues — including in Africa.  

Recently, a group of students and others developed Univote, an election platform using Ethereum, for college elections at the University of Jos in Nigeria.

“The election was successfully done and the present set of [student leaders] were selected through this system,” said Stephen Kusu, a co-founder of Univote, in an interview with Forkast.News. “We hope to make efforts to implement the same in Uganda in the near future.”

Although Univote was done on a very small scale, it could be another step forward toward blockchain voting, at least for Africa. 

Many of Africa’s election problems remain political, and even the most secure and fail-proof blockchain voting system would still require a willing government to implement it for its people. 

However, the level of awareness amongst voters also matters, as they also influence and inform decisions of those at the seat of power. 

Much of blockchain voting remains nascent, and there are still many technical problems and unanswered questions, as Voatz and its critics have shown. However, given this technology’s potential for ensuring fair, accurate and secure elections, for a continent that has had a dearth of them, Africans can only hope blockchain voting matures sooner rather than later.