Applying Blockchain Technology in Electoral Processes for Democracy and Election Integrity
Focusing the lens in Kenya and its neighboring countries
In the last two decades, we have seen a vital connection between our electoral process and election outcome. When an election process is found with irregularities it often leads to post-election conflicts.
In some African countries, elections are conducted to appease the electorate, satisfy a checklist for the international observers, and for the exiting government to maintain power. For instance, the recent Uganda general elections conducted on 14 January 2021, a “democratic” process that does not institutionalize democratic structures or strengthen its existing governance systems. For a democratic and fair election, there must be a free press, separation of state powers over electoral commissions, a friendly environment for civil societies, an independent judiciary, and sound (transparent) electoral processes.
In Kenya, one of the major achievements we have made after struggling under an authoritarian regime of the late President Moi for twenty-four years is limiting the rule of a president to two terms (10 years). We have also pushed for a two-thirds gender principle in our constitution, which endorses women to take part in our government by creating special seats for them in the National Assembly.
A Recurring Problem
During a general election, some issues can lead to an election outcome be disputed. In Kenya, from the 2007 general election to 2017 where the election results were annulled, there has been one common recurring problem — election tallying. The opposition leader Raila Odinga has always contested the results in the Supreme Court citing manipulations of the election tallying results.
When a petition is lodged against an election outcome, the evidence central to such a petition becomes crucial to the decision-makers. Out of mistrust and general precaution, major political parties in an election usually set up their own parallel tally centers to countercheck what the official electoral commission is broadcasting. When numbers don’t match with the official ones, it turns out to be a battle in the courts.
Other reasons can lead to compromising elections integrity. For instance, stuffing ballot boxes with extra votes, an incorrect voter’s register, double voting, or bribing the voters but it is almost consistent in all election-related cases from 2007 to 2017, that the main issue raised is that of numbers not adding up. What the polling stations submit to the official tallying center gets mixed up or manipulated. An interesting part of these kinds of cases is the petitioners offer their own tallied results which differ from the official ones. Who should we trust in such a scenario where we have two different election results?
A Possible Solution
The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2020 partly addresses some of these issues that lead to wrong election results. For instance, clearly stating the:
- Registration of agents, their rights, and responsibilities during an election.
- Appointment and responsibilities of an election officer.
- Accreditation and obligations of election observers, etc.
However, is there a way we can increase the level of trust among parties involved in the general elections? If we meet high levels of trust in our electoral processes, we can be guaranteed to have fewer disputes after an election. Which also means allowing a peaceful transition of power without post-election violence. In 2017 we were close to achieving this goal, but we made one big blunder — the proposed system had a single point of failure, the IEBC ICT manager Mr. Chris Musando. The ICT manager was in charge of Kenya’s computerized voting system for the 2017 general elections. Unfortunately, he never lived long enough to see the system working as planned. He was maimed and tortured to death.
One of the ways to raise trust in the results of our general election is by guaranteeing the submitted results from polling centers are of integrity. By making the process as open as possible and allowing all the participating members to agree with every step involved in compiling the conclusive results.
Blockchain technology fits in this case quite well. Blockchain is essentially a digital ledger, it provides trust, transparency, security, and autonomy. This technology is powered by peers/nodes in its network to verify, process, and record all transactions across the system. Given enough considerations, blockchain can address our election-related problems more openly. We are presented with a ledger that is uncentralized and not controlled by one entity (in our case, the electoral commission) but all the peers on its network. It makes it hard to be influenced by a particular party or being taken down.
There is no single point of failure since the ledger is never stored in a central location. But rather distributed across the entire network of computer systems (peers/nodes) on the blockchain.
Here is how I imagine how such a system would work here in Kenya, have each presidential candidate provide election (counting and tallying) agents to be available at every polling center. The agents liaise with their team parties to confirm the results submitted to the national tallying center. Using a private blockchain-powered database that registers the key party leaders as peers in the private blockchain, it will make the process transparent (and close to realtime). Whenever IEBC returning officers enter election results from a particular constituency (official tally forms), the results can be verified by the political parties acting as peers in the database — consensus. In case an error is discovered and corrected, it can be verified/audited since the database maintains records of all changes made.
In the 2017 elections, Kenya made history by becoming the first African country (fourth in the world) to have a presidential election nullified by the courts. In Africa, Kenya did set precedence, Malawi followed by having their May 2019 general elections result annulled. Maybe we stand yet setting another precedence by considering Blockchain technology for general elections integrity and openness. We do have a national Blockchain Taskforce, and this is a consideration they can ponder about.