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Image courtesy of Carty Sewill, http://cartyisme.com/

West Virginia has become the first ever U.S. state to offer internet voting supported by blockchain technology.  The West Virginia government is testing the technology as part of a pilot program, so that deployed members of the military and their dependents have the opportunity to vote in the upcoming Senate primary election on May 8th, without actually being physically present at traditional ballots.

A statement made on the Secretary of State’s website calls the current process for absentee military voters, “cumbersome to complete,” and hopes this blockchain-based solution will alleviate any issues. The report further states that finding solutions to allow military members to participate in voting more easily was among West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner’s top priorities since taking office.

Warner said:

“Our military service personnel fight every day across the globe to protect our way of life. They deserve to vote as much as anyone, and we owe it to them to make the process as easy as possible,” “Whether a Soldier is without mail service in the mountains of Afghanistan, or a Sailor is in a submarine under the polar icecap, they deserve the opportunity to participate easily in our democracy. They should have a voice in choosing who sends them into harm’s way.”

The technology powered by Boston-based startup Voatz works by recording votes on the blockchain. A voter’s identity is verified using biometric tools such as a fingerprint or facial scan. Not only does this mean that miscount potential is eliminated, but voters can see their vote directly on the blockchain, and the vote can be cast from anywhere in the world with internet access. The move makes voting as transparent and accurate as possible, with the hope of increasing both trust and participation.

“West Virginia is taking the lead in providing safe, secure and accurate voting systems to encourage voter participation at every level,” said Secretary Warner. “We’re working hard to increase the level of confidence citizens have in our election process. Increased confidence results in increased participation.”

Warner and his team will gauge success via a number of metrics, including voter participation. But Warner is also concerned about the app’s user-friendliness, stating that “Not only are we looking forward to military voters participating in this pilot project, we’re asking for their input on the user-friendly nature of the mobile application itself.”

The pilot program, which is a joint venture between the Office of the Secretary of State of West Virginia, Voatz, Tusk/Montgomery Philanthropies, New America and the Blockchain Trust Accelerator, is limited to voters in just two counties – Harrison and Monongalia County – for the time being. However, according to Warner, the plan is to expand across all 55 of the state’s counties during the 2018 general election in November if the program is deemed a success.

 

Correction:

On March 14th, BlockExplorer incorrectly reported that Sierra Leone became the first country to use a blockchain to capture votes during a presidential election. This article will clarify the extent of Agora’s involvement in Sierra Leone’s election.

What is Agora?

Agora is a Swiss-based voting technology company that has developed an end-to-end verifiable voting solution for governments and institutions. Their mission involves spreading fair and transparent elections around the world using blockchain technology.

The Claims

The company, Agora, claimed to have run the first blockchain-based election in Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, the company just observed the results and entered the data into their blockchain.

The Facts

— National Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (@NECsalone) March 19, 2018
  • The National Electoral Commission (NEC) accredited Agora as an international observer of the March 2018 Sierra Leone presidential election.
  • Official election results only come from the NEC.
  • Agora’s results were published on our website five days before the end of the official manual count carried out by the NEC
  • The company’s results are very close to the NEC’s published results.
  •  The goal was to have this election demonstrate the company’s capabilities and open the door for further cooperation with the NEC in the future.

Honest Mistake or PR Stunt?

Prior to the NEC’s statement, Agora CEO Leonardo Gammar stated, “This is the first time a government election is using blockchain technology.” The misleading statement soon made headlines drawing praise from the blockchain community. The company has since taken to Medium to clarify its involvement and address criticism. Agora’s proof of concept demonstrates the potential of blockchain-based voting systems, however, the world’s first election officially using a blockchain is yet to occur.

 

Blockchain

Edit:

This piece has been retracted, as it was based on a misunderstanding of the information available. The update is here.

 

Sierra Leone has become the first country to use the blockchain to capture votes during a presidential election.

In 2016, Philip Boucher, a writer for the European Parliament Research Service Blog, questioned whether the blockchain could revolutionize voting. In a Scientific Foresight: What if…? blog post, he wrote:

Despite the digitalisation of several important aspects
of modern life, elections are still largely conducted
offline, on paper.

Yet, while he thinks there are some issues that need to be overcome first, he believes that blockchain-enabled voting (BEV) proposes an alternative voting process ‘with a different set of values and political basis,’ adding:

Traditionally, the authorities manage elections and the process is black-boxed, centralised and top-down. BEV is the opposite. The process is managed by the people and it is transparent, decentralised and bottom-up. While participation in traditional elections reinforces the authority of the state, participation in BEV asserts the primacy of the people.

Now, it seems as though the technology is reinforcing the primacy of the people in Sierra Leone, according to a report from Quartz. Via blockchain startup Agora, a Swiss-based foundation providing digital voting solutions, up to 400,000 votes were manually recorded into Agora’s platform.

According to Leonardo Gammar, CEO of Agora, he says Sierra Leone’s election commission (NEC), was ‘open-minded’ about the use of the technology for its elections. Final results from the West Districts can be found here.

I also thought that if we can do it in Sierra Leone, we can do it everywhere else, he added.

The end goal for Agora is to automate the election process with voters using biometric data and cryptographic keys that enable votes to become validated on the blockchain. Gammer is hoping to continue the work Agora is doing, but on a larger scale. However, he notes that it’s important to understand the problems each country is facing first.

In Sierra Leone, for instance, electoral difficulties include poor network connectivity, violence at elections, and low literacy levels. Despite this, though, Gammar is adamant that the team will be able to figure out ways around problems they may face, adding:

If phones are not available, you can go borrow. If you are blind, we can make your phone speak to you. If you don’t read, we can put up pictures. There is no big technical issue. Everything else requires being imaginative.

Featured image from Shutterstock.