“The government moves too slowly, it will never keep up with the rapid pace of technological and social change.”
“The government’s composition does not represent the composition of our country -- they are too old, rich and white, what could they know about my problems?”
“There is no way to hold them accountable. Elections are not often enough, they can do bad jobs or they can ignore our needs.”
“The barriers to entry into government and even into participating are too high! It is so expensive and time consuming to get involved.”
Efficient, representative, accountable, and accessible -- these are words that describe a good government and words which do not describe the current state of ours. Climate change, the refugee crisis, global terrorism -- these are the problems our governments are grappling with, but to no avail. Technological change seems to be accelerating the very rate at which our world spins; yet our government seems increasingly stagnant. Our discourse is increasingly polarized, gerrymandering decides where our voting power begins and ends, and massive financial barriers prevent most from entering politics. How we reconcile the barrage of increasingly complex new issues with the glacial pace of our government has become an increasingly urgent question.
If technology is what has accelerated the speed of change in our world and exposed the shortcomings of our political processes, then perhaps it also holds the answer to the question of how we can improve those same processes. We use our technology every day in increasingly novel ways, to find our way to work, to contact our loved ones, to quickly research facts - so why is it still so difficult to integrate technology and government? I am not talking about the ability to email your representatives in order to receive some bland form response, but rather a meaningful way to interface with the offices that purport to represent us.
We need a digital government for this digital era. Perhaps that sounds radical, in the same way that the notion that you could have a video call with someone on the other side of the planet would have sounded radical even thirty years ago. With the advent of blockchain technology, we now have the power to build online voting systems that are not susceptible to corruption and which can be verified by every participant. Elections today are expensive, slow, and highly inaccessible. Even without considering the amount of money spent by candidates on their individual campaigns, the cost of facilitating a major election itself is hundreds of millions of dollars. The polls on election day are often open only during working hours, can be a considerable distance from a voter, and can be further restricted through voting ID laws. Online voting, which offers solutions to all these problems, has become increasingly appealing,
First, I want to tell you about the technology that would make online voting possible, and then about the organization that is trying to do it.
Online voting probably seems like a pipe dream. After watching the fallout of the latest presidential scandal -- the allegations of hacking from all sides -- putting our voting system online, where it seems most susceptible to tampering seems foolish. And it would be, given the highly centralized state of our current internet.
What sort of technology would make online voting possible, fulfilling the basic underpinnings of good governance by being efficient, representative, accountable, and accessible? The blockchain. You may have heard this phrase in association with bitcoin. The blockchain is the technology that bitcoin runs on, but its utility does not stop there. The blockchain is a simple concept that requires a dive into complex cryptography that most of us do not want to take, so I will offer a simplified picture of the blockchain. The blockchain is a decentralized public ledger, in that it is a way to store information - balances, like any other ledger. This information can be a monetary transaction, as in the case of bitcoin, but it really can be any set of information - like a vote. It is public in that everyone can view the data it holds, holding what amounts to permissionless auditing rights (which is precisely the remaining centralized function of status quo elections). This does not mean they can trace back who sent the transaction (or the vote), they can only see its content -- ie. how much the transaction was and when it was sent. Finally, it is decentralized because no single entity is in charge of maintaining it. Instead, the ledger is created by a large number of “nodes” (essentially computers running certain programs) agreeing upon the values in the ledger.
When people say it is impossible to change data on the blockchain, is that actually true? No, data can be changed but it is almost prohibitively difficult to do so, and significantly more securable than our current voting systems. Data on the blockchain is safe from all forms of conventional hacking. What makes information susceptible to hacking on our present internet is centralization. If the power to modify information is vested in one entity, then it is easier to find a way into that entity and change the information. If the power to change information is spread across many entities, and those entities are incentivised to tell the truth, then it becomes functionally impossible to change the information.
Let’s make this concrete with an example: say we are trying to verify whether the sky is blue. Like the data in the public ledger, viewing the sky is possible for everyone. Even if someone were able to convince a few people to say the the sky is in fact green, the rest of the people would be able to confidently step outside and say, “Nope, it is still blue.” In the same way, if a malicious actor wanted to change a vote on the blockchain and managed to gain control of several nodes and have them report different values than the rest, the rest of the nodes would still be able to check their records, see that the changed value was false, and reject the change. The malicious actor would need to gain 51% of the hashing power in order successfully make a change like that, and in any large network that is functionally impossible.
There have been several projects that aim to use the blockchain to put voting online, with the most established govtech/civtech player being Democracy Earth Foundation
Democracy Earth is creating a software tool called Sovereign, “a blockchain-based liquid democracy platform that enables direct voting on issues or the ability to delegate (and revoke) voting power on specific topics to peers over a secure network without central authority.” It was founded in 2015 by Santiago Siri and Pia Mancini, Argentinian nationals and founders of the political party “Partido de la Red” - (the “Net Party”). This party promised to vote in accordance with how citizens voted on their application, DemocracyOS. While Net candidates did not win an elected seat in the parliament, the open source software was adopted by parties in countries around the world. The foundation tested its liquid democracy platform in a Hong Kong CEO vote, plus an October 2016 pilot as part of the famed Colombia peace referendum, enabling a symbolic plebiscite vote among the diaspora of ~6 million expatriate Colombians. The pilot enabled citizens to vote separately on different parts of the referendum as well as to delegate their votes to more knowledgeable voters, with results revealing important nuances in voter preferences not captured in the referendum. The pilot provides an active demonstration of how fully participatory democracy reduces voter polarization, powerlessness and apathy.
Today Democracy Earth is a decentralized global team of developers, political activists, theorists and hacktivists from more than eight countries. Last year founder Santiago Siri, a member of the World Economic Forum, was named by Visionary of the Year MIT Technology Review.
So what is liquid democracy? Liquid democracy is a term used for a democratic system that includes both direct voting and representation. It is a beautiful, flexible system that allows you either to vote directly on issues that you are knowledgeable and passionate about,or to delegate your vote to someone you trust and respect for issues you know less about. In liquid democracy your delegated vote is revocable - i.e. it is liquid, and can flow back to your control. Meaning that if you realized that your delegate had voted in a way you disagreed with, you could pull back your vote. You would be able to see what your representative had done with your vote, meaning which way they voted. This does not mean you would be able to see how your delegate placed their own vote -- you only are able to view how your vote tokens were used, whether you used them directly or delegated them.
Proof of identity is the greatest challenge of digital voting systems. With online voting, how do we verify that people are who they say they are, or are not voting twice? In its decentralized solution Democracy Earth models a form of “attention-mining” - as they call it - in a process similar to the verification of captcha images before accessing an app, except now you would be verifying whether a person’s digital identity was unique. Various organizations within the voting system, say a business or a nonprofit, could also verify identities and their reputation would be tied to how often they verified legitimate identities as opposed to duplicates. The creation of these self-sovereign (i.e. not controlled by a 3rd party) digital identity along with the verification of them is the most complex and still developing aspect of the Sovereign governance app (and, really, any blockchain application) but the work done thus far by Democracy Earth, uport and other blockchain technology start-ups shows that online proof of identity is not impossible.
Sovereign’s token economy incorporates a stable coin architecture resembling a universal basic income distribution; with vote tokens ‘dripping’ at regular intervals to citizen wallets. It also has a debate forum component called “Agora” so that issues can be discussed in the same venue where votes take place. The wide range of the Democracy Earth development team’s vision cannot be adequately summarized in the length of this article, but after reading their white paper The Social Smart Contract (a top 20 paper on Github) the full revolutionary impact of the ideas it presents is evident.
The Sovereign liquid democracy platform supports representative democracy, but enables direct democracy on a global scale, disrupting a system that no longer works for the majority not by changing it but replacing it completely. Whether you view Democracy Earth’s work as the first attempt at updating a system that is badly in need of change, or a revolutionary program that aims to erase nation states, it is still an impressive and ambitious project. If interested, they also welcome contribution as they are committed to open source work.
Democracy Earth’s program is clearly bold. It does not aim to revamp our current voting system by simply placing it online, but rather to build an entirely new one. It is still early in its journey and has many problems to solve -- but it is forcing us to ask the right questions about technology, democracy, and the future of our world.
There are many reasons that governments will be hesitant to use this program or any blockchain voting system -- how new it is, how dramatic of a shift it represents, and how obsolete it may render some of today's bureaucrats. Nevertheless, technological change and development seem to be marching on regardless of government approval or adoption. Just as universal suffrage, the abandonment of the gold standard, and the legalization of gay marriage were radical ideas when they first emerged, blockchain voting may be today's crazy idea and tomorrow's standard.