Modifying democracy with the blockchain

Published on the 08/02/2018 | Written by Donovan Jackson

Secure voting
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An Australian start-up is looking to change democracy for the better using blockchain technology. The company, SecureVote, has developed a system which it says allows people to vote securely, anonymously and instantly on issues as they arise, a process which CEO Nathan Spataro said can ‘increase the frequency of democracy’.

Politics and philosophy are at the heart of the company’s technology. Spataro told iStart the ‘journey began’ in 2014 through the founders’ involvement in the bitcoin community. “Then we started working on Flux, which is a new system of democracy, and formed a political party where we could make change without the ‘ruling class’, and out of that came a need for a decentralised voting system.”

Wikipedia states that the Flux party constitution confers the powers of a benevolent dictator on its leaders; the idea of ‘issues based direct democracy’ supported by blockchain isn’t unique either, with USA-based not-for-profit Democracy Earth looking to do something similar.

Clearly, Spataro and his co-founders believe there is a problem with democracy as it is presently practised. In the pitch for the interview, the following message was included: ‘Throughout the world, there are increasing levels of dissatisfaction with the democratic process. Many people feel their views are not being considered and that politicians are out of step with the feelings of voters.

‘High-profile examples of this dissatisfaction can be seen in events such as the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. In both instances, many voters claimed afterward their vote was meant first and foremost to ‘buck the system’ rather than reflect their actual political values.’

While there is certainly a case to be made for the digitisation of an obviously clumsy, expensive and slow system of casting votes – which involves paper and pencils, of all things, for millions of people – it is arguable that democracy can’t be considered problematic when it doesn’t deliver the ‘right’ outcome.

Going on, the pitch added: ‘This broad sense of dissatisfaction comes at a time when people have never had better access to knowledge. No longer restricted just to mainstream media outlets, they can obtain information from a broad range of sources, allowing them to gain fresh perspectives and make more educated decisions. Unfortunately, however, the traditional democratic system is not well designed to cope with a more educated and informed voter base. There is no easy way for people to become more involved in the decision-making process, outside of electing politicians every three or four years.’

Also unfortunately, despite or perhaps even because of the internet, people remain gullible. Fake news and ‘do your own research’ are catch-calls in a society ready and willing to embrace new idiocy (anti-vax and chemtrails) with evergreen claptrap (homeopathy, crystal skulls, etc.)

Vote on every issue, easily
SecureVote’s answer was the development of a system which will allow people to vote every time an issue arises, using their smartphone. “We’ve devised a way to do decentralised voting on blockchain which provides anonymity for voters, something which hasn’t been done yet in any other digital systems,” said Spataro. “And it offers scalability and trust; with blockchain, you don’t need to worry about trust as you can publicly audit it, while maintaining a secret ballot, and see that the votes are coming from validated users.”

Spataro said the technology was initially built for Flux, the political party; with the Australian federal election complete (in which Flux won 0.15 percent of the vote), attention turned to the start-up company, SecureVote.

From politics to business
But even ideologically-driven companies (and one is impressed with 20-something Spataro’s exuberance) must pay the bills, and as has been the case since antiquity, politics and business inevitably mix. “We quickly identified that as a start-up business, it’s not prudent to focus on governments as they tend to be slow to move. We realised that the cryptocurrency market needs this technology as they don’t have a good way to provide governance or for token holders to impact the ecosystem, provide feedback and so on.”

So, while blockchain is again being posited as a world changer, in this case targeting something as fundamental to Western civilization as democracy itself, it still can’t be disconnected from cryptocurrency. At least not where SecureVote is concerned.

But this also demonstrates the power of Spataro and his colleagues’ innovation. A secure voting system can allow shareholders/stakeholders to rapidly participate in company decisions which need to go to a vote, accelerating the process and arguably driving up the convenience and ease with which input from everyone is gathered.

The company’s first client is Swarm Fund, a Silicon Valley investment platform. “We’ve moved the company to focus on providing these kinds of solutions, looking to position for sustainability then grow the business to a point where it can focus on government, while maturing the product.”

And back to politics
Changing the way democracy is a lofty goal, agreed Spataro. Asked if this is even viable, he said it is not only that but also ‘almost inevitable’. “What we are doing is part of a bigger wave. Our ambition comes from the problems we see. Generally, the world is moving towards a more democratic future; the thinking behind this is that humans are the most important thing in the universe. We don’t know anything else that can construct new knowledge and all good ideas come from humans. People today have never been so empowered in terms of financial wellbeing and knowledge, so it makes sense to leverage that to solve those problems.”

From the pitch, those problems might appear to be democracy as we know it today delivering the ‘wrong’ outcomes: Brexit and Trump. But whether one agrees with that or not, fortunately, is somewhat beside the point as will soon become clear.

Spataro instead said democracy as it is today doesn’t harness the power of the people, and hence he sees ‘pain’. “Brexit, if you think it a bad thing doesn’t matter, people made that decision, but they don’t feel that they are participating, and they want to. If democracy is going to succeed, it has to factor in human power.”

A more engaged future (is that even desirable?)
Democracy while not an ideal system is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, still the best one we have. Which doesn’t mean a technologically driven update to it isn’t overdue, whatever the philosophical or political underpinnings of those who seek to make the change. “We need a better way to participate by making the process as easy and accessible as possible.

“These are things we need to think about, we need to prepare for a future where people are more engaged, with models of democracy that more high frequency and which allow people to participate on their own terms. And SecureVote delivers the technology to make it possible, so people can vote on an ad hoc basis. And we’ve built this system to handle billions of votes – we’ve done 1,5 billion votes in 24 hours.”

While it might be argued that the constituent who can’t be bothered to get off the couch to vote shouldn’t necessarily be empowered to do so as he or she might simply vote for the candidate with the nicest smile, Spataro and SecureVote provide the technology to do just that. “The ability to handle high frequency and high-volume votes is not available with traditional or other digital voting systems,” he said.

SecureVote’s ‘transformative process is to democratise’. It’s a big, big goal. “We might as well aim high. If you’re going to tackle something go for it – and this something I deeply care about. Technology has solved a lot of problems, but how has it been used to fix the machinery of democracy? Voting with the blockchain can get deliver open polling, users could log on from their smartphone and complete their ballot, there are cost and security benefits. Voters can engage from the comfort of their own homes without the pressure of being in a voting booth. And when people recognise that their decisions have an impact, I believe they will become more involved.”

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