How technology could redefine democracy

As the world looks to Kenya’s repeat presidential election, there has been considerable attention around the meteoric rise of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and other utilisation of blockchain, the technology behind it.

As the world looks to Kenya’s repeat presidential election, there has been considerable attention around the meteoric rise of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and other utilisation of blockchain, the technology behind it.

This, in one broad respect, is due to the virtual incorruptibility of the technology that could be utilized in electronic voting, among other functions already being applied in other sectors.

It should therefore be of interest now that the Kenya’s Supreme Court verdict is now fully pronounced: That, elections in the country should be about the process, not numbers; that they should be about quality, not quantity.

The Court ruled that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission bungled the electronic transmission of the results against claims of tampering by the election petitioner and ordered a repeat in the presidential poll.

Blockchain Technology (BT) describes a cloud-based network that provides a tamper-proof data structure, in addition to providing a shared public ledger open to all.

Data is not stored in any single location, but in millions of computers simultaneously making it virtually impossible for a hacker to corrupt stored information.

Some of its central characteristics, therefore, include being indestructible, not owned nor controlled by any single central authority (person, institution or server).

BT application in voting would be revolutionary, upending the current top-down political model as we know it. While participation in traditional elections reinforces the authority of the state, participation in blockchain-enabled e-voting (BEV) asserts the primacy of the people.

This realisation has inspired start-ups such Democracy Earth, an American non-profit organization, to develop a global online e-voting tool it is calling “Sovereignty” with the aim to establish borderless, decentralised, transparent and incorruptible governance. It would more realistically place power in the hands of the people.

Its feasibility is undergirded by the overarching principle that the BEV process would be managed by the citizens. It therefore offers a real prospect of a more direct, decentralised and bottom-up democracy.

So viable is the BEV promise that the European Parliament is already considering it.

The process promises a superior option to the electronic voting currently undertaken in tech savvy nations such as Estonia, one of the most digital countries in the world.

E-voting at present could either be internet-based or a dedicated, isolated network; requiring voters to attend a polling station or allowing unsupervised voting; using existing devices, such as mobile phones and laptops, or requiring specialist equipment.

Estonia was the first country in the world to allow online voting in 2005. By the 2015 parliamentary election, 30.5% of all votes were made though the nation’s internet voting (i-voting) system. If need be, the system also incorporates use of a mobile phone for supplementary identification purposes.

Eligible Estonians already has an electronic national ID card that enables one to access other online services including banking, digital signature of documents, as well as access to other information on government databases. In this regard, it is much like Rwanda’s Irembo or Kenya’s eCitizen platform.

However, though the Estonian Information Systems Authority strongly vouches for the i-vote’s integrity, some observers in its 2013 election highlighted a number of potential security risks with the system showing it was possible to introduce malware thereby making it likely to manipulate the vote. However, this is a charge the Estonian Authority refutes.

Blockchain’s technology mathematical complexity affords no opportunity for doubt. The Bitcoin public ledger innovation amply demonstrates its tamper-proof credentials. And, so successful is it that it has already spawned over 800 cryptocurrencies minting overnight dollar millionaires.

The applicability of BT’s digital ledger is already being employed in various public and private sectors even in some countries in the region. The sectors include banking, national security, healthcare, citizenship documentation, or online retailing, identity authorization and authentication.

As for e-voting, however, the truism is that if no election can be 100 per cent perfect, no technology is perfect either.

The soft underbelly of the BEV ironically comes from the process’s positive aspect of being transparent. The secret ballot is a valued tenet in democratic determination, which may be compromised in the transparent nature of applying blockchain technology. This kink, however, can be overcome borrowing some blockchain providers such as ZCash who are specialising in anonymous transactions.

Just before the Kenyan elections, there was talk of making future polls fully electronic. While this is possible, there is ongoing debate globally about the implications of blockchain for the future of democracy.

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