Regardless of one’s opinions about the outcome, the recent Brexit referendum in the U.K. should be considered a welcome example of direct democracy. In fact, letting the citizens express their preference on important issues, bypassing the intermediation of politicians, is often desirable.
Why, then, isn’t direct democracy used more often? One reason is that it costs money to organize and run elections. Another is that voting is still a 20th century (or 19th century) process that requires physically going to a place, or in the best cases, sending paper documents via snail mail. Therefore, voting is often too much of a hassle for 21st century citizens, who are now used to doing most things online, without leaving home.
On October 2, the citizens of Hungary were called to a referendum to choose whether or not to accept refugee quotas imposed by the European Union. While the issue has raised and continues to raise impassioned debates in Hungary (and other European countries,) less than half of the population voted. That was partly due to the fact that minority opposition parties told their supporters to stay home, in order to invalidate the results of a referendum they couldn’t win. But another reason is that many voters couldn’t be bothered.
Typically, only half or fewer than half of eligible voters vote in a referendum, which, together with the costs, makes direct democracy impractical. The average participation in administrative and political elections isn’t much higher. It seems clear that the world needs electronic voting (e-voting). Ideally, we should vote online, just as we do e-banking from home.
“Since the turn of the century, e-voting has been considered a promising and (eventually) inevitable development, which could speed up, simplify and reduce the cost of elections, and might even lead to higher voter turnouts and the development of stronger democracies,” notes a recent European Parliament document titled “What if blockchain technology revolutionised voting?” The document is one of the “What if…” essays in the Think Tank section of the European Parliament website, dedicated to “documents that help shape new EU legislation.”
The author, Philip Boucher, is a member of the Scientific Foresight services in the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) team of the European Parliament. According to Boucher, we have two choices: “to continue trusting central authorities to manage elections, or to use blockchain technology to distribute an open voting record among citizens.”
Security is an open and challenging issue for e-voting. Of course, other aspects of “e-life,” such as e-banking, present important security concerns as well. In e-banking, appropriately high security is typically achieved through multi-factor authentication, and some high-security applications use biometrics as well. One difference is that society is supposed to guarantee easy access to voting to everyone, regardless of income or education. Therefore, it seems likely that blockchain enabled e-voting will be deployed in private organizations first.
“Usually, votes are recorded, managed, counted and checked by a central authority,” notes Boucher. “Blockchain-enabled e-voting (BEV) would empower voters to do these tasks themselves, by allowing them to hold a copy of the voting record.”
A possible approach to BEV is to create new blockchains tailored to e-voting, and perhaps even to specific elections and demographics. Similar approaches are often preferred by regulators and bureaucrats, but Boucher is more bold and creative. “A second approach that may be cheaper and easier is to ‘piggyback’ running the election on a more established blockchain, such as that used by the virtual currency, bitcoin,” says Boucher. “Given that the security of a blockchain ledger relies upon the breadth of its user base, this piggyback approach may also be more secure for elections with a small number of voters.” It’s interesting to note the similarity of this argument with those put forward by cryptographer Nick Szabo in favor of the open, permissionless Bitcoin blockchain.
It seems evident that BEV would be cheaper than the current voting system. But one of the sources cited by Boucher is skeptical about the other advantage of e-voting mentioned above — that e-voting would boost turnout. In fact, the younger “digital natives” who would find BEV natural and easy are, according to surveys, not very interested in voting.
There could be other political advantages of BEV though. “The debate is whether blockchain will represent a transformative or merely incremental development, and what its implications could be for the future of democracy,” notes Boucher. “BEV would shift power and trust away from central actors, such as electoral authorities, and foster the development of a tech-enabled community consensus.”
One of the references given by Boucher is a Bitcoin Magazineinterview with Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof, the founder and CEO of Bitnation, a blockchain-based “Governance 2.0” initiative, with a collaborative platform for DIY governance. “We believe we’ll make both nation states governments, as well as organizations like the U.N. irrelevant, simply through providing cheaper, more secure and better Do-It-Yourself governance services,” said Tarkowski Tempelhof in another Bitcoin Magazineinterview.
Boucher, an officer of a European organization, would probably question the desirability of the outcome advocated by Tarkowski Tempelhof. But the fact remains that some of the considerations in the European Parliament paper suggest decentralized politics is a desirable outcome. This is, to say the least, refreshing.
“[BEV] is managed by the people and it is transparent, decentralized and bottom-up,” explains Boucher. “While participation in traditional elections reinforces the authority of the state, participation in BEV asserts the primacy of the people. In this light, it is not surprising that links are drawn between BEV and transitions towards a more direct, decentralized and bottom-up democracy.”
Image credit: By Keith Bacongco - http://www.flickr.com/photos/kitoy/1597912606/, CC BY 2.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29436258