The Importance of Citizen Auditors in Elections
In Agora’s ecosystem, not only can each voter verify that his or her vote was accurately recorded and that it remained unaltered, but voters can also audit the results of their own elections — or those of other nations or organizations — and get rewarded for it. In this way, voters play a key role in ensuring fair elections and can place their trust in the electoral procedures.
Before we begin, here are two definitions to keep in mind:
Consensus Nodes: a distributed network of independent witness servers. Together, they form the “Cothority”, a permissioned collective authority providing consensus on the Agora blockchain.
Citizen Auditor Nodes: a global decentralized network of trustless nodes. Together, they form the “Valeda Network”, which watches and verifies that the consensus is processed correctly.
Roles Played in Traditional Elections
To demonstrate just how important observers are, let’s take a look at an incident that took place in the Sierra Leone elections earlier this year:
During elections, the European Commission randomly selects polling stations to observe. Typically, officials count the ballots once at their local polling station prior to sending them to the primary tallying center to be counted again. In the case of Sierra Leone, the primary tallying center was located in Freetown.
At one polling station — located approximately thirty kilometers outside of Freetown — all ballots were counted, placed back inside their boxes, loaded on to a truck, and sent on their way. However, the truck carrying these boxes didn’t arrive in Freetown until three and a half days later.
During that window of time, the European Commission had no idea about the whereabouts of the truck, nor did they have a visual on the boxes containing the ballots from their polling station of origin.
According to sources, the truck broke down and needed to be repaired. However, the truth behind what really happened during those three and a half days remains hazy. No one knows whether or not the ballots were tampered with or left untouched. Either way, the possibility remained that the ballots would reveal different results when recounted by the tallying center than at their origin location.
When the truck finally arrived on site of the Freetown tallying center, the European Commission wrote a report to the Electoral Commission stating that they had no observers or visuals on the ballots during those three and a half days. With the whole country eagerly awaiting the results of their presidential election, the European Commission did their best to put the public’s mind at ease.
Meanwhile, the Electoral Commission had to decide whether to ask those who had voted at the polling station in question to recast their votes or consider that sample of the population negligible. In the end, they chose the latter.
This is why having observers in elections is so important.
Transporting Observers into the Digital Era
In traditional polling stations, there are officials and observers. The election officials are staffed by the Electoral Commission and are comprised of individuals trained to count the ballots. Officials are the only people permitted to handle ballots. Then there are the observers of elections. Observers can be local NGOs, outsiders, even political parties on occasion, who sit in front of the counting table, watching and taking note of how the ballots are being handled. These observers then send their reports to the Electoral Commission, detailing whether or not anything anything out-of-the-ordinary occurred.
What Agora tries to do with our infrastructure is to maintain the highest standards for all players involved in elections. Our consensus nodes act as the officials and are the only ones who can touch the digital ballots. These nodes are reputable, not-for-profit organizations who have no economic stake in the election itself. However, to add an extra layer of security, these consensus nodes are being watched throughout the election process by citizen auditor nodes.
With citizen auditor nodes, anyone can plug-in and observe these consensus nodes, in real-time. Citizen auditor nodes are financially incentivized — via the Agora VOTE token — to provide honest, valuable feedback regarding the behavior of consensus nodes. This feedback is then evaluated by algorithms to ensure that citizen auditor nodes are operated by real humans, not bots. These algorithms also compare the feedback offered by one auditor node to that provided by rest of the network and looks for any significant variations.
Let’s examine the importance of citizen auditor nodes during an attempted hack:
If, between 3:02pm and 3:03pm, several devices appear to be compromised — enough to be scary or considered a malicious attack — then these citizen auditor nodes will provide Agora with feedback of this unusual behavior on the network. Since that feedback is made public, the government running the election will know immediately and will have all the information necessary to make a decision on what to do next.
If requested, Agora will work with governments to trace the devices where strange signals are coming from, without revealing the identities connected to those devices. From there, we will request that those devices submits their vote again. Alternatively, the government can decide to omit that subset of votes from their election results. The decision is theirs to make, however, this decision will be watched by citizen auditor nodes worldwide.
As you can imagine, elections and the decisions involved can be a very sensitive diplomatic issue. There is a lot at stake for governments and citizens alike, which is why it is important for elected officials and decision-makers to show the rest of the world that they are doing a good job by embracing a more transparent, digital voting solution.
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