Democratize Democracy through Technology

September 30, 2019 Thanasis Mandaltsis

Democracy comes from the Greek word Demokratia. The term can be split into two words: “Demos” which essentially means “the people” and “kratos”, which stands for “strength, power, to rule”. Democracy by definition stands for “power to the people” but one could argue that humans have seen very few implementations of direct democracy since its first appearance, approximately around 500 B.C. in the ancient city of Athens. The world has evolved immensely since then and yet the concept of democracy, as a structured system for decision making, has stayed the same to the extent that it does not efficiently serve our globalized needs. Technology can be the cornerstone in the pursuit of direct democracy.

I was a little disheartened the other day when I read that the second most searched term in the UK after Brexit was “What is the EU?”. How come, in the era of information, where everything you need to know can be a single click away, politicians continuously fail at educating their electorate before a decision is made that can affect so many lives? The internet allows us to have one-to-many, many-to-many and many-to-one conversations. It is, hence, unacceptable to only interact with representatives once every four years and then passively wait for them to make our decisions for us. The technology now exists including zero-knowledge proofs and cryptography to enable a scalable and cost-effective voting system. With such technological advancements, in the near future, I do not see us traveling for simply to exercise a foundational democratic right. I hope we won’t need to cut down forests for ballot paper. We need to start voting more frequently and in a more sustainable way. In a direct democratic system (of the future!) everyone would perhaps have a personal, cryptographed wallet with their verified legal identity which they’d be able to use to access various services including casting a vote. This offers the potential for more responsive governance of communities which will be able to get views from their people on various policies more easily. Of course  such a transformation would not happen overnight but one immediate use case that could prove its superficial benefits is referendums including saving time and administrative costs/expenses. 

I have discussed this topic with people of different backgrounds and usually the feedback I receive is either enthusiasm or skepticism. Democracy is one of the pillars of our society and considering that it might need corrections can make us question many of our beliefs. At the same time, in the increasingly complex world that we live in, we would be fooling ourselves by claiming that democracy, as everything, cannot improve with iterations. The appropriate foundations will be the key to delivering this endeavor. Legal identities and biometrics in combination with artificial intelligence can stop fraud and build trust in eVoting systems. This will lead to three distinct benefits. It will increase turnout which will be remote and will enable polls on new proposed legislation more regularly and without spending millions. At the same time, the remote nature of the process will promote inclusion and access for everyone. Lastly, using the latest technology, people will take control of their legal identity online and voting results will be immutable and not susceptible to fraud. 

As every significant change, democratizing democracy through technology, will find resistance. Hopefully, like every significant advancement it will prevail regardless. A triumph I’m very enthusiastic to witness. I have been fortunate to read about, speak to and work with people that recognize the urgency for a more agile and responsive governance system. We are facing some imminent existential crises that go beyond country borders and the best way to deal with them is to work collaboratively, learning from each other and our past mistakes. The good news is that there are entrepreneurs, initiators and democracy warriors in our world who work on technology that can support more responsive governance. Agora is an example where entrepreneurship facilitates transparent but secure decision making for participants. It can be applied to a wide range of scenarios from public to private decision making in countries and organizations. Voting is a right - core to democracy - and technology in our era can enable both the security and access to it.

Voting remotely and more frequently is not new. Estonia, Canada, Finland, France, India, Norway are a few of the examples that have put it into practice. Countries that hold more frequent votes, e.g. for smaller bills, can have more engaged citizens who feel that they can make a difference in their societies and the world. Isn’t it frustrating when our governments make a decision that does not represent us? For the time being there is very little we can do in such cases and our inability to effectively react, makes it is easy to forget and move on. We owe it to ourselves, our societies, and the young people of the world to start taking ownership of these decisions.  More than ever, now, it’s time to consistently start applying new ways of educating the electorates and ensuring every voice to be heard. Democracy, after all, means “power to the people” and there’s nobody I would better trust with the future of this world than the people.

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