Global democracies need to be modernised. Innovative digital solutions might make our political systems more decentralised and participatory.
For full analysis of democratic processes, and the potentials of online voting and blockchain governance, read our full report, "Democracy Decentralised: Voting, Governance & Transparency".
Many democracies function much the same way they did at their inception. While the internet upended the rest of our lives, democracy seems like a relic of the past - an issue that is fast catching up with us, as younger generations are less motivated to vote. So, it’s fair to ask why our lives have gone digital while our democracies remained analogue?
Governments are reluctant to install new technology. On one hand, this makes perfect sense. Changing the core of a democratic system cannot be done lightly. There needs to be consensus on these changes. On top of that, technology is often both expensive and time-consuming to install. However, especially in light of this year, we should consider new paths to make our democracies more direct, accessible, and equal. 2020 did revive conversations about online voting, but they rarely go far enough to suggest more democratic voting systems. However, some tech communities are actively looking for better governance.
There is one suggestion that we discussed in our report ‘Democracy Decentralised: Voting, Governance & Transparency’: Quadratic Voting. It has been around for decades, but been given a breath of new life.
Quadratic voting allows you to not simply cast votes, but also to make them more representative of an investment in an issue. Voters can cast more than one vote for an issue, but each subsequent vote counts less.
This system is mathematically complex. Without technology, it is unrealistic for large-scale use. Further, quadratic voting was first theorised as a monetised voting system. In this system, ensuring that following votes were not the same weight as the initial vote was paramount. But, by employing blockchain, this system could be both free and secured against 'double spending' votes.
Now, blockchain opens the possibility of a system with:
This allows electors to not only vote for what impacts them most, but also to express the intensity of their preferences. While these benefits will impact all voters, it is particularly important to safeguard minorities and mitigate polarisation in the long term.
In a majority system, to win, a candidate must receive more votes than all other candidates combined. Or more than 51% of all votes. This system is criticised for only allowing one super-majority party, or two majority parties that continually vie for power. The US Presidential elections are an example of this.
The more common alternate, plurality voting, is fairly simple. Whichever candidate or political party (depending on the system) receives the most votes, wins the election. They do not have to receive more than 51% of the votes, as in a majority system. This grants more political parties and candidates a better chance of winning, but still often requires voters to align with larger parties for a chance at representation. Fringe or third parties rarely win, and divide the electorate.
So, both systems often limit the voting rights of minority blocks. Therefore, quadratic voting might provide the choice of the 'most ideologically close candidate'.
A quadratic voting system would give every voter the opportunity to decide and communicate which issues impact them most. This is especially important for not forcing voters to choose a majority party to side with. Minority voting blocs would have the opportunity to reach the representation they deserve on issues that directly impact them.
That's not to say it's perfect. Obviously, quadratic voting will not change the kind of decisions on what citizens vote on. That remains the purvue of governments, or will require other solutions. However, a more direct democracy that counts voters’ degree of interest could have a serious impact.
Polarisation is an urgent issue shaking global democracies, including European societies. How quadratic voting could decrease the degree of polarisation?
Political polarisation generally has the same roots and drivers - divisive leaders. Quadratic voting could reduce this, by giving voters different opportunities to express beliefs aside from the most divisive leaders. Additionally, increasing votes may decrease their opportunity to have a loud voice on a particular topic. This is not guaranteed, though, as it remains up to the voting public who they elect and how they use their votes.
In addition, digital solutions could lower barriers between voters and governments. Direct contribution to government decisions might mitigate the trend of low voter turnout and reverse extreme polarisation. e-Governance systems could enable voters to see the result of their involvement in the short-term, fostering political participation. New methods of democracy could boost our democratic systems, making them more transparent and attractive for both new and old generations.
Big tech is a major concern for many, especially in democracies. But, can it also be used for good? Taiwan is currently trying to do just that. The Taiwanese Digital Minister, Audrey Tang, is using open-source platforms, quadratic voting, and distributed ledgers to increase democratic participation in the country.
The "Presidential Hackathon" of 2019 used Quadratic voting. This hackathon was a global initiative to bring innovations and practical solutions for social needs and public contracting. Different stakeholders could submit their proposals and projects. Citizens then got to vote on projects using quadratic voting.
In the 2020 Presidential Hackathon, 53 teams from seven countries participated and more than 10.000 people voted. These voters were able to decide which projects would improve their lives the most.
While the use of quadratic voting is currently limited to small or local initiatives, its contribution can become truly valuable if implemented along with other technological solutions.
Quadratic voting is also in play in German politics. The Volt Germany party used it to identify priorities during their second congress in 2019. The results showed that minorities were able to demonstrate their commitment to specific projects and limit influential monopolies of the majority.
All these experiments show how local governments might use this system to better understand citizens' priorities and preferences to build public trust. In addition, as voters must pay in voice credits to express a strong opinion, they are incentivised to think carefully about their vote.
As mentioned above governments need political consensus to implement such technological solutions. This year was full of challenges that in different ways threatened our democratic systems and, consequently, citizen’s rights. To make the most from this experience, governments should keep the debate on innovative remote voting systems alive. So, why not try to make these methods even more participatory and equal?