Blockchain voting app puts democracy in the palms of the people

The technology behind bitcoin could foster a fresh form of liquid democracy in which voters can influence politics with just the tap of an app

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BITCOIN switched the way we think about money forever. Now a type of political cryptocurrency wants to do the same for votes, reinventing how we participate in democracy.

Sovereign is being unveiled this week by Democracy Earth, a not-for-profit organisation in Palo Alto, California. It combines liquid democracy – which gives individuals more plasticity in how they use their votes – with blockchains, digital ledgers of transactions that keep cryptocurrencies like bitcoin secure. Sovereign’s developers hope it could signal the beginning of a democratic system that transcends national borders.

“There’s an intrinsic incompatibility inbetween the internet and nation states,” says Santiago Siri, one of Democracy Earth’s co-founders. “If we’re going to think about digital governance, we need to think in a borderless, global way.”

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The basic concept of liquid democracy is that voters can express their wishes on an issue directly or delegate their vote to someone else they think is better-placed to determine on their behalf. In turn, those delegates can also pass those votes upwards through the chain. Crucially, users can see how their delegate voted and reclaim their vote to use themselves.

It’s an attractive concept, but it hasn’t been without problems. One is that a seemingly unending series of votes saps the motivation of users, so fewer votes are cast over time. Additionally, a few “celebrities” can garner an unhealthy number of delegated votes and wield too much power – an issue Germany’s Pirate Party ran into when experimenting with liquid democracy.

Siri thinks Sovereign can solve both of these problems. It sits on existing blockchain software platforms, such as Ethereum, but instead of producing units of cryptocurrency, Sovereign creates a finite number of tokens called “votes”. These are assigned to registered users who can vote as part of organisations who set themselves up on the network, whether that is a political party, a municipality, a country or even a co-operatively run company.

No skill of blockchains is required – voters simply use an app. Votes are then “dripped” into their accounts over time like a universal basic income of votes. Users can debate with each other before determining which way to vote. A single vote takes just a tap, while more votes can be assigned to a single issue using a slider bar.

Recording votes on a blockchain requires complicated mathematics that makes tampering with them after the fact practically unlikely. “The blockchain is incorruptible, no one can modify or subvert how the votes are stored, and that’s vital for democracy,” says Siri. Votes are finite, but users can assign more votes to issues they care most about, unlike conventional one-person, one-vote elections, Facebook likes or signatures on petitions. This means votes will be used more cautiously, Siri says.

“Votes are ‘dripped’ into people’s accounts over time like a universal basic income of votes”

Sovereign will become available to the public towards the end of this year, but has already passed its very first test. It was trialled in an unofficial digital referendum in Colombia about a political deal with the FARC rebel group last year. It mimicked the official referendum on the same subject, but rather than a plain yes or no, voters were able to allocate one hundred votes as they dreamed across the seven main planks of the proposed agreement.

In the conventional vote, the government’s peace deal was narrowly rejected. Using Sovereign, they would have discovered that there was only one point in the agreement people struggled to get behind.

Rouven Brües of the Liquid Democracy Association in Berlin says the team’s vision is “compelling”. However, he warns against observing the concept as an instant panacea. “I would be cautious to trust any technology that [claims] it will solve our social, cultural or societal problem totally by itself,” he says.

One potential issue is that any transactions on the blockchain are typically free to view by anyone, something that has visible implications for the sanctity of the secret ballot. There are, however, some blockchain providers, such as ZCash, who specialise in anonymous transactions that could help find a work around.

A number of digitally savvy political groups, mostly in South America, are also interested in using Sovereign, including Partido de la Crimson (the Net Party) in Argentina. Siri hopes the system could form the basis of a world-changing fresh form of governance with internet-enabled democracy as a fundamental human right.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Bitcoin tech to restore democracy”

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