Bitcoin, the virtual currency, has had a rough year. But the underlying technology behind it is being used in small test environments, to see how a decentralized and encrypted system of trust can be applied to voting and democracy.
Bitcoin's been in some trouble lately. Every week, it seems like there's a new exchange going down, social engineering heist, or pronouncement from the IRS to bring the collective spirits of cryptocurrency enthusiasts down. People are understandably worried about Bitcoin's future as money, including Reddit CEO Yishan Wong, who praised the technology but called out the bitcoin community for being overly ideological in a recent post. The way it's talked about in some quarters, Bitcoin replacing money will strangle big government, eliminate the federal reserve, and radically change our democracy. So what happens if Bitcoin doesn't become the new money?
As it turns out, it may not need to completely replace money to shake things up. A number of groups have already begun working worldwide on evolving cryptocurrency technology and adapting it to other uses. So far we've seen SolarCoin trying to incentivize renewable energy, Namecoin allowing people to circumvent pesky internet censorship and site takedowns, and the nationalistic AuroraCoin getting handed out to all Icelandic citizens.
One of the most promising applications of new crypto tech lies in creating transparent, efficient systems for making political decisions. For those who are counting on cryptocurrencies to radically shift political power back to the people's hands, it's worth considering that decisions about how we organize society and allocate resources are just as important as the currency we use for trading. Enter bitcoin-based voting.
I spoke with Oliver Hinck from the European Pirate Party about Liquid Feedback, their system for internal party democracy. He's been using their Liquid Feedback system since 2011. Basically, the Pirate Party uses this system to determine its position on issues. For Oliver, this was an important way of crystallizing their platform.
"I was fed up with constantly repeating discussions about copyright—so, I saw that
it's absolutely crucial to find new ways for the process of forming the political will of a group," he said.
Liquid Feedback works by allowing every member a vote on every issue. If they don't want to vote or don't feel qualified to weigh in, they can delegate their vote to a trustee. There's no need for an annual convention, and the Party could change its platform by quickly polling members in response to new developments.
The current way you and I vote at different levels of our democracies is by electing delegates every four years or so, and generally staying out of the process in between. Apart from special occasions, we rarely get to decide on an issue-by-issue basis. Instead, we trust our representative to cast a vote for us or otherwise represent our interests. This arrangement isn't necessarily a bad thing—many of us are too busy, lazy, uninformed, apathetic, or all of the above to decide on a wide range of political questions that leaders grapple with. It's a relatively efficient division of labour. Up until the widespread adoption of the internet, having a true direct democracy wouldn't even have been remotely practical. But as connectivity grows, it's now within reach, and getting closer.
Liquid Feedback isn't based on the blockchain—the central technology underpinning Bitcoin. But it's part of a number of pieces of democratic software like Helios or Ethelo that promise to make in-group democracy much more efficient and achievable. These kinds of processes are well-suited to co-ops, community organizations, social enterprises, credit unions—anywhere you want members to have a direct vote on any issue. They use algorithms based on social research to determine the most amount of satisfaction for a group based on the expressed preferences of its members.
Merging this with the blockchain for security and verifiability is where it could get interesting for bigtime, official democracy. This is nicely pictured below in this image from Denmark's Internet Party.
One of the most useful parts of Bitcoin is its blockchain, which is essentially a public ledger of all transactions. It's transparent, irreversible, decentralized and very difficult (but not impossible) for one party to gain control over. This means that if you base a direct voting system on a blockchain, anyone with a computer and a little know-how could verify the results. It would be possible to see how many votes were cast, voters could verify that their own votes were counted, and the decentralized network would be the best answer so far to hacking attempts. Combined with the political thought that's gone into systems like Liquid Feedback, there's a starting point here for putting political questions to the public much more frequently and ambitiously.
A public voting system could be built within and on top of existing or proposed cryptocurrencies. BitCongress, one idealistic idea, builds itself mainly on Ethereum, a blockchain-based programming platform for trustless contracts, transactions, and decentralized autonomous organizations. Even after going to an Ethereum meetup, I'm not entirely sure how Ethereum works, but its developers describe it as "cryptocurrency 2.0" that will enable a wide array of applications of blockchain technology that aren't possible with Bitcoin alone. If they're right, then we can compare cryptocurrency today to the internet in 1994—things are just getting started.
A few problems immediately jump out when we picture widespread electronic voting. We're still human, for one. No matter how optimized our systems get for counting people's votes and balancing their interests, there will still be people who want to break the rules to their benefit.
Vote-buying, intimidation, and hacking are three big human wrenches thrown into the gears of online decentralized voting. What if someone offers to buy my vote on an issue, and threatens to send goons to my house if I don't agree? What if my device has a virus on it that will change my vote without my knowledge? What if voters just don't give a shit, or get tricked into voting against their interests? What if we get results like California, with its massive proposition battles and referendum-riddled budget?
I asked Emil Kirkegaard from the Danish Internet Party to address some of these concerns. In a blog post, he outlined some responses to these fears. Emil addresses the impracticality and high cost of intimidating enough voters to make a difference, the fact that you could already sell mail-in absentee ballots if you wanted to, and the notion that a voting system must be perfect in order to justify trying it out. Our current paper-voting system isn't perfect: turnout is crap; politicians can already indirectly buy votes by promising development or massive advertising expenditures; and people are for the most part disengaged from politics between elections. But we accept it, problems and all, because it's the best we've currently come up with.
The largest problem with e-voting, even with a blockchain network, is client-side hacks (i.e., some sort of exploit compromising a voter's computer, rather than the network itself). There's no solution yet, but Alex Petherick-Brian, a programmer working on a friend-to-friend networked mesh democracy outlined that the solution to this could involve looking for irregularities after the vote, promoting static media like live CDs (which would virtually ensure each voter's computer was uncompromised by booting into an unadulterated operating system that's programmed onto a CD), and open voting, where users could verify their vote went as they wanted.
Would e-voting solve all these problems or be perfect? No. Would it be better than our current system? Quite possibly. It's that chance that makes experimentation worth trying.
It's probably too soon to embark on a giant national experiment in electronic voting, even when built on a solid cryptographic foundation. But it's undoubtedly worth starting small, and starting open-source. Canadian cities are already contracting large projects to improve public consultation and make people feel heard, so it's clear that there's a demand. What cryptocurrency technology brings to the table is security and openness, two things that are essential to scaling the process up.
Anyone expecting decentralized electronic voting to solve all our democratic problems shouldn't hold their breath. History suggests that political theory doesn't match reality. Implemented thoughtfully, decentralized direct democracy offers some fantastic possibilities for improving our political life by letting people have a greater voice if they choose to. In a time when people are already trendily "hacking" their diet, their business model, their workspace, and their sleep schedule, why shouldn't we be tempted to hack democracy? We might just like the results.
Chris Malmo is a donor relations coordinator at OpenMedia.