Can Blockchain Tech Make African Elections More Transparent?

Written by Tom Jackson


Blockchain tech may be the breakthrough that is needed for more transparency and less corruption with regards to African elections, following a global-first blockchain-supported presidential election in Sierra Leone.

Swiss Foundation Agora recorded votes using blockchain in almost 300 polling centers, testing a new approach. The aim was to ensure a more transparent election by recording each vote on the unalterable blockchain so that, in theory, results could not be manipulated.

Manipulated elections are all too common across Africa, and frequently lead to violence, as witnessed recently in the aftermath of the disputed poll in Zimbabwe. Could blockchain really fix these problems?

Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) thinks so, announcing recently that it plans to use blockchain at the next election. The results of Kenya’s last four elections have been hotly disputed, and the IEBC believes blockchain can tackle this, allowing candidates to access real-time results.

But what would blockchain tech actually do?

Using blockchain tech means that data is secured via cryptography, with all new transactions linked to previous ones. This makes it impossible for records to be altered. The blockchain network is run by multiple nodes, with any one user needing to have control of over half of these nodes in order to change anything.

Essentially, then, it makes the likelihood of any one party being able to manipulate the results of an election much lower. Voting systems become more secure and voters and candidates can have more confidence in the process.

The potential has been spotted elsewhere. In the U.S., West Virginia is piloting a blockchain-based voting platform. Nasdaq has used it for shareholder voting. Kaspersky Lab has built a blockchain-based secure online voting system.

“Online voting imposes extremely stringent requirements on the security of every aspect of voting. We believe that the blockchain technology is the missing link in the architecture of a viable online voting system,” the company said.

blockchain tech
Sierra Leone used blockchain tech during their elections. Photo – AP – Rebecca Blackwell

Kenya has created a task force to analyze potential use cases of blockchain headed by Dr Bitange Ndemo, a former permanent secretary in the East African country’s Ministry of Communications. He was appointed earlier this year.

He said the use of of technology in elections was a “hot topic”, and that blockchain could have a significant impact on transparency.

“In past elections it was difficult to validate the information given by candidates. Some even bought college degrees, only to be discovered later. With failure to validate information, you end up having criminals in parliament,” he said.

If Kenya can digitise the process and use blockchain to register results, tampering can be eliminated. Ndemo’s taskforce is recommending the country begin with local elections to test the process before moving on to the more controversial presidential voting.

Kevin Desouza is professor of business, technology and strategy at the Queensland University of Technology’s Business School, and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which has been looking into the potential impact of blockchain on elections globally.

He sees great potential for the application of the tech in African elections, saying it could ensure the integrity of elections and add to transparency levels.

“In addition, the technology, if used appropriately, and coupled with existing digital infrastructures, can drive an increase in participation as well,” he said.

“Voter manipulation and illegal voting can also be curbed through the use of blockchain technology.”

It is early days.  The Sierra Leone pilot was a small one, and the government subsequently raised doubts about how much blockchain tech had actually been used in the process. Kenya has tried – and failed – to use tech at election time before, with the much-touted biometric voter registration kits failing last time around.

It may be a while before we see full adoption of this groundbreaking tech at election time. But if it does get off the ground, it could have a major impact on the integrity of African votes.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.