by Cindy Huynh
On March 7, 2018, Swiss Lab and Foundation for Digital Democracy called Agora, reported that they would work with Sierra Leone to make it the first country in the world to run blockchain-powered elections. Unfortunately, this was false. Agora merely observed the voting and stored some of the results.
How the Election Was Polled and Counted
The National Election Commission (NEC) of Sierra Leone released an official statement on March 18, 2018, via Twitter to make it “clear that the NEC has not used and is not using blockchain technology in any part of the electoral process.”
— National Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (@NECsalone) March 18, 2018
According to Tamba Lamin, technical architect for the Sierra Leone Open Election Data Platform, and his Medium blog titled ‘Setting the record straight about Agora’s Blockchain Elections Misleading Headlines on the Internet,’ “voting in Sierra Leone was a manual paper-based process.” Even “counting the ballots was [a] manual process.”
Lamin drew his statements from the official 2018 Polling and Counting Procedures Manual published by NEC. The official handbook also contains clear illustrations on how the ballot is marked manually with either a pen or a fingerprint.
The NEC however, released another tweet on March 19, 2018, clarifying the technology used to tally the election results.
— National Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (@NECsalone) March 19, 2018
While this response provides more details concerning the mechanism behind the tallied database, it mentions at the bottom that “it does not use Blockchain in any way.”
Agora’s Involvement with the NEC Sierra Leone Elections
On March 9, 2018, Agora published a press release with a headline titled ‘Swiss-based Agora powers world’s first ever blockchain elections in Sierra Leone.’ The post gained a significant amount of hype and received coverage in mainstream media from large publications like Business Insider, TechCrunch, CoinDesk, and the World Economic Forum.
“Agora is claiming undue credit for doing nothing that helped the people of Sierra Leone,” said Lamin to the RFI, “As Sierra Leoneans, we find this unethical and insulting to the people of this country.”
According to Agora’s recently released statement, they had access to only 280 polling stations.
Lamin mentions there are approximately 11,200 in total, demonstrating that Agora had access to roughly two percent of the total polling stations. He said that Agora’s involvement also had no impact on the standard election procedures of the NEC.
The Radio France Internationale (RFI) stated that Agora’s results were, however, different to NEC’s results. Agora responded saying that their findings “are very close to the ones published by the NEC for the same area.”
In response to the backlash, Agora published an official statement to clarify their stance. They believe that “sensational headlines have become a norm of the internet, and [that] both companies and media outlets have a responsibility to cover events accurately.”
Nevertheless, Sierra Leoneans are unhappy with the Swiss-based organization and demand a retraction from the company. “All we ask for is that the company does the right thing and retract the fake news otherwise we will be forced to take any recourse available to us,” said Lamin.