This is the decade of the protest. The Arab Spring. The Occupy Movement. And now the student demonstrations in Taiwan.
Argentine political scientist Pia Mancini says we’re caught in a “crisis of representation.” Most of these protests have popped up in countries that are at least nominally democratic, but so many people are still unhappy with their elected leaders. The problem, Mancini says, is that elected officials have drifted so far from the people they represent, that it’s too hard for the average person to be heard.
“If you want to participate in the political system as it is, it’s really costly,” she says. “You need to study politics in university, and become a party member and work your way up. But not every citizen can devote their lives to politics.”
>Democracy OS is designed to address that problem by getting citizens directly involved in debating specific proposals when their representatives are actually voting on them.
That’s why Mancini started the Net Democracy foundation, a not-for-profit that explores ways of improving civic engagement through technology. The foundation’s first project is something called Democracy OS, an online platform for debating and voting on political issues, and it’s already finding a place in the world. The federal government in Mexico is using this open-source tool to gather feedback on a proposed public data policy, and in Tunisia, a non-government organization called iWatch has adopted it in an effort to give the people a stronger voice.
Mancini’s dissatisfaction with electoral politics stems from her experience working for the Argentine political party Unión Celeste y Blanco from 2010 until 2012. “I saw some practices that I thought were harmful to societies,” she says. Parties were too interested in the appearances of the candidates, and not interested enough in their ideas. Worse, citizens were only consulted for their opinions once every two to four years, meaning politicians could get away with quite a bit in the meantime.
Democracy OS is designed to address that problem by getting citizens directly involved in debating specific proposals when their representatives are actually voting on them. It operates on three levels: one for gathering information about political issues, one for public debate about those issues, and one for actually voting on specific proposals.
Various communities now use a tool called Madison to discuss policy documents, and many activists and community organizations have adopted Loomio to make decisions internally. But Democracy OS aims higher: to provide a common platform for any city, state, or government to actually put proposals to a vote. “We’re able to actually overthrow governments, but we’re not using technology to decide what to do next,” Mancini says. “So the risk is that we create power vacuums that get filled with groups that are already very well organized. So now we need to take it a bit further. We need to decide what democracy for the internet era looks like.”
Today Net Democracy is more than just a software development shop. It’s also a local political party based in Beunos Aires. Two years ago, the foundation started pitching the first prototype of the software to existing political parties as a way for them to gather feedback from constituents, but it didn’t go over well. “They said: ‘Thank you, this is cool, but we’re not interested,'” Mancini remembers. “So we decided to start our own political party.”
The Net Democracy Party hasn’t won any seats yet, but it promises that if it does, it will use Democracy OS to enable any local registered voter to tell party representatives how to vote. Mancini says the party representatives will always vote the way constituents tell them to vote through the software.
>’We’re not saying everyone should vote on every issue all the time. What were saying is that issues should be open for everyone to participate.’
She also uses the term “net democracy” to refer to the type of democracy that the party advocates, a form of delegative democracy that attempts to strike a balance between representative democracy and direct democracy. “We’re not saying everyone should vote on every issue all the time,” Mancini explains. “What were saying is that issues should be open for everyone to participate.”
Individuals will also be able to delegate their votes to other people. “So, if you’re not comfortable voting on health issues, you can delegate to someone else to vote for you in that area,” she says. “That way people with a lot of experience in an issue, like a community leader who doesn’t have lobbyist access to the system, can build more political capital.”
She envisions a future where decisions are made on two levels. Decisions that involve specific knowledge — macroeconomics, tax reforms, judiciary regulations, penal code, etc. — or that affect human rights are delegated “upwards” to representatives. But then decisions related to local issues — transport, urban development, city codes, etc. — cab be delegated “downwards” to the citizens.
Ensuring the integrity of the votes gathered via Democracy OS will be a real challenge. The U.S. non-profit organization Black Box Voting has long criticized electronic voting schemes as inherently flawed. “Our criticism of internet voting is that it is not transparent and cannot be made publicly transparent,” says Black Box Voting founder Bev Harris. “With transparency for election integrity defined as public ability to see and authenticate four things: who can vote, who did vote, vote count, and chain of custody.”
In short, there’s no known way to do a secret ballot online because any system for verifying that the votes were counted properly will inevitably reveal who voted for what.
>’Our criticism of internet voting is that it is not transparent and cannot be made publicly transparent.’
Democracy OS deals with that by simply doing away with secret ballots. For now, the Net Democracy party will have people sign-up for Democracy OS accounts in person with their government issued ID cards. “There is a lot to be said about how anonymity allows you to speak more freely,” Mancini says. “But in the end, we decided to prioritize the reliability, accountability and transparency of the system. We believe that by making our arguments and decisions public we are fostering a civic culture. We will be more responsible for what we say and do if it’s public.”
But making binding decisions based on these online discussions would be problematic, since they would skew not just towards those tech savvy enough to use the software, but also towards those willing to have their names attached to their votes publicly. Fortunately, the software isn’t yet being used to gather real votes, just to gather public feedback.
Harris thinks prohibiting anonymous comments is the right move for a system like Democracy OS, as it could help cut down on trolls, lobbyists, and public relations professionals using the forum to spread disinformation. “It is appropriate to amplify voices of people willing to put their name behind what they say,” Harris says. “The overuse of anonymity on the Internet creates an abundance of pseudo-persons, sometimes the same person under different phony identities, and these are the voices really amplified. There are only a few situations where anonymity is truly needed for democratic participation, such as privacy of actual vote casting, and speaking truth to power in situations of autocracy or abuse.”
Ultimately, though, the biggest challenge may simply be getting people to use the software. This will all sound familiar if you’ve followed the German Pirate Party, which has its own open source application called Liquid Feedback that allows members to vote on ideas and even delegate their votes to other members. Unfortunately, Der Spiegel reports, Liquid Feedback has been something of a bust.
“A poll of Pirate Party voters there concerning a proposed law to regulate circumcision showed 17 in favor of fighting the proposed law, two in abstention and one against – 20 votes in a federal state with nearly 18 million inhabitants,” the paper reported. “It’s a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.”
Net Democracy is hoping to avoid a similar fate by making Democracy OS much easier to use. So far, that’s working out, says Jorge Soto, the coordinator of digital strategy of the office of the president of Mexico. “We received more than 1,000 comments just for the policy and more than 300 [additions to] the document,” he says.
As a political scientist and former campaigner, Mancini is well aware that engagement takes more than just fancy software. “Our challenges are not technological. They’re cultural,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is foster a culture. It’s not just about opening up a space, we need to work to facilitate that debate and work with education and public training events, not just opening up a new Facebook.”