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Blockchain At The Polls?

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Blockchain is being adapted for election usage elsewhere in the world, and could provide the answer to making voting more transparent in Africa.

Kenyan elections are notoriously tricky affairs, usually with disputed results and occasionally with accompanying violence.Other African elections often descend into chaos, as most recently seen in Zimbabwe, but in blockchain, the open, distributed ledger most commonly associated with bitcoin, a solution may have been found.

Earlier this year, presidential elections took place in Sierra Leone. During the vote, Swiss foundation Agora used blockchain to record votes in more than 300 polling centers. As blockchain records transactions in a verifiable and permanent way, it is almost impossible to alter. Therefore, by recording votes on it, elections in theory become more transparent.

This greater transparency could be pivotal to ensuring more effective democracy and calmer elections across Africa, where disputes over votes are common. Kenya looks set to become the next country to test the benefits, with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Chairman Wafula Chebukati saying it would utilize blockchain in the next elections.

READ MORE: Building Blockchain Tech With The World As Their Official Address

What impact could it have? Michael Kimani is Chairman of the Blockchain Association of Kenya, and he says that will depend on how it is used.

“From my experience, any deployment of distributed ledger technology could be at one of three points in the electoral system – the main server where voter registration data is held, the national tallying center where all information from across the country is collated, and the tallying centers where group representatives take part in a tallying process,” he says.

Wherever and however the IEBC chooses to employ blockchain, electoral laws would have to be changed to accommodate it. Kimani also says it’s worth keeping in mind that the technology itself is still nascent.

“Beyond cryptocurrency, there hasn’t been any deployment at scale,” he says.
Nevertheless, Kimani believes the IEBC statement is a positive starting point, and that using blockchain could have a significant impact on reducing fraud.

“The concept of a distributed ledger for processes that were previously limited to a single entity would provide significant improvements for the whole process,” he says.

“The concept of a distributed ledger for processes that were previously limited to a single entity would provide significant improvements for the whole process,” he says.

“I am less concerned about the technology itself. It really boils down to man-made specifications that can be implemented. I see potential problems in setting up the necessary governance structures required to make it a reality. There are some things the technology can do, but the rest of it is really up to humans – the laws we set up, the institutions we set up, the audit processes we set up to check on the technology where it fails, and the dispute resolution structures we set up.”

Challenges remain. Yet, blockchain is being adapted for election usage elsewhere in the world. It has been piloted in elections by the state of West Virginia in the United States, while tech firm Kaspersky Lab has built a platform that utilizes it for voting.

Alexey Malanov, a malware expert at Kaspersky Lab, says it is the next logical step on from online voting, which has been used in countries such as Estonia in northern Europe.

“Online voting can be highly beneficial for modern society – it has the potential to make voting easier, cheaper and more convenient. In the modern, efficiency-driven, mobile world, various limitations of offline voting have become apparent: it’s expensive, time-consuming and often inaccessible – or at least challenging for people who aren’t physically present to cast a vote,” he says.

Alexey Malanov

“Online voting can help overcome these challenges, but this brings several uncertainties of its own: how to properly secure the process and how to make sure that the votes aren’t changed or altered by an external or internal party.”

Usage of blockchain technology for general elections, however, is not reasonable at the moment, he says.

“It’s quite a slow technology. A public blockchain processes 10 transactions per second, [which] is not enough to ensure voting for millions of citizens within one day,” Malanov says.

However, Kaspersky Lab is sure blockchain has vast potential yet to be uncovered, with its Business Incubator team exploring opportunities for secure implementation of blockchain for commercial use, and how its transparent, incorruptible and trusted characters could benefit areas beyond cryptocurrencies.

“We saw a great market opportunity and decided to support an experimental and promising project called Polys. It’s a secure online voting system based on blockchain technology and backed by transparent crypto-algorithms,” Malanov says.

“From the user’s perspective, it consists of a web service through which to organize voting and cast a vote, using a mobile phone or tablet. As in any vote, there are several key requirements that would make online voting trusted and secure – transparency of the process, anonymity of a voter and their confidence that their vote won’t be altered in favor of a candidate or option they didn’t choose.”

Blockchain-based programs like Polys provide all this, and it’s surely only a matter of time before we start seeing them used in African elections

– Tom Jackson

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