The dawn of the 21st century has seen the rapid modernization of various sectors of society. Technological advancements spurred by the growth of the internet have revitalized everything from travel to healthcare to education, improving the lives of countless individuals across the globe. Yet amidst all this change, one thing has remained almost unsettlingly constant—our concept of democracy. While other fields are undergoing radical transformations to meet the needs of our time, today’s democracies function much the same way they always have; as Pia Mancini puts it, “we are 21st century citizens interacting with 19th century institutions, using 15th century technology.”
Due to the limitations of the tools in our arsenal, modern democracies currently rely on a select few to make decisions in the name of the many. When it comes to electing these trusted few, most nations rely on paper-and-pencil voting, engendering the systematic disenfranchisement of certain members of the electorate. As if this weren’t bad enough, a 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center found that lackluster communication from democratic leaders has led to a widespread distrust of the political elite; across 34 countries, 64% of respondents reportedly disagreed with the sentiment that “most elected officials care what people like me think.” American republicanism is plagued by unique problems as well. Our winner-take-all approach to voting often excludes minority voices from the conversation, since by definition, such a system requires winning candidates to attract a majority or plurality of the vote. American elections also disproportionately precipitate partisanship, polarizing voters between two parties that each promise to utterly demolish the other.
At the heart of these issues lies an uncomfortable truth: democracy is in dire need of an update. According to experts in tech policy, the key to enacting this much-needed change lies in blockchain, a distributed ledger technology that is immutable, traceable, and verifiable. Thus far, blockchain’s main application has been in the realm of cryptocurrency, where it has completely altered the way we think about finance. By incorporating this technology into politics, we have the possibility of revitalizing our governments as well—blockchain opens the door to a system of liquid democracy, addressing the pitfalls of modern republics and granting citizens a more direct stake in their governance.
So what exactly is liquid democracy? In this model of government, individuals can choose to either vote directly on legislation or delegate their voting power to proxies who act on their behalf. In other words, liquid democracy combines the best aspects of direct and representative democracy—it gives voters the option to enact change on issues that matter to them, but also recognizes that not everyone has the time or knowledge required to cast their own ballot.
Rather than rely on geographically-dependent representatives to vote for their constituents on all issues, liquid democracy allows citizens to choose proxy-representatives that are trusted members of their own social network. Because of this, a functioning liquid democracy naturally evolves into a meritocracy, where decisions are made primarily by individuals who have the knowledge required to make well-informed judgements. Liquid democracy also ensures that representatives are consistently held accountable for their decisions, since voters can change how their vote is delegated at any time, for any reason. As Dominik Schnier, co-founder of the IOTA cryptocurrency, writes: “delegation in a liquid democracy is a sign of trust.” If this trust is ever broken, a voter can simply revoke their delegation and opt to count on someone else instead.
But the story doesn’t stop there. In a liquid democracy, voting power passes transitively from one person to the next. This means that delegates can themselves proxy their votes to other individuals, creating a directed network graph connecting everyday voters to politicians and specialists. According to writer Danny Chricton, super-proxies—delegates that control a large proportion of citizens’ votes—are the backbone of a liquid democracy: “while there may be 700,000 people in a congressional district, only a few hundred super-proxies would need to be deeply engaged in the system for better representation to take place.” This transitive method of vote-proxying allows for a network of more meaningful connections, rewarding a community’s most trusted leaders while simultaneously empowering citizens to participate in the democratic process.
If these ideas sound rather far-fetched, it is because they have been until very recently. In the words of Luke Fretwell, liquid democracy has “only just now become feasible.” Any attempt at delegating and revoking votes with paper ballots would be functionally impossible because of the process’s sheer complexity. With the use of blockchain, however, sending someone a vote, tracking how they use it, and revoking the vote if dissatisfied becomes very simple. After a ballot was cast, it would be pseudonymously recorded on the blockchain to ensure that election procedures remain transparent. Through the use of smart contracts—self-executing programs baked into the framework of the blockchain—all delegates would have their vote made accessible to constituents, guaranteeing that they are held accountable if their decision deviates from what is expected. Smart contracts could also be employed to certify that legislation goes into effect as soon as it is approved, eliminating much of the bureaucratic obstruction and obfuscation emblematic of democracy today.
Blockchain-based democracies come with other advantages as well. The liquid model of governance has an incredibly low entry barrier, since all that is required to make someone a voting delegate is trust. This means that instead of elaborate campaigns filled with purposefully nebulous jargon, political power in a liquid democracy will be granted based on genuine trust of an individual’s competence. Additionally, liquid democracy leads to more impactful policy-making by allowing citizens the chance to voice their opinions on specific legislation. This is in stark contrast to our current model of democracy, in which the only voting power bestowed on individuals is the power to send new representatives to Congress. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, liquid democracy facilitates the equal representation of minorities. By eliminating the need for winner-take-all elections, blockchain-based democracy makes it possible for voting blocs of any size to have a proportionate say in the governance of the country.
Although liquid democracy is a relatively recent proposition, entrepreneurs at home and abroad have already started to recognize its tremendous potential. One organization determined to bring the idea to fruition is the Democracy Earth Foundation, a California-based non-profit that built the Sovereign platform to help citizens experiment with blockchain governance. Users of Sovereign have the ability to propose legislation, call elections, debate issues, cast votes, and delegate (as well as revoke) their voting power. According to founder Santiago Siri, the end goal of this arrangement is to free politics from repressive central authority: “we want to empower people down to the individual level, without asking for the permission of governments.” Herein lies the chief merit of blockchain democracy—since it is entirely decentralized, no third party can ever forcibly take an individual’s right to vote; the only way to cede power is through informed consent.
Of course, blockchain governance has a ways to go before it can be feasibly incorporated on a global scale. In addition to the obvious issue of government resistance, there are also concerns about the mass distribution of vote tokens, the security of elections, and even the possibility of widespread vote token speculation. However, the existence of these obstacles by no means implies that liquid democracy is a pipe dream of the distant future; already, it is having tangible impacts in communities of the present day. In 2016, for example, a primitive version of the Sovereign platform was used to gauge public opinion on a peace treaty between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group. Analysis of the results revealed that although citizens generally supported the treaty as a whole, there was widespread disagreement over one particular clause about the reintegration of ex-rebels. Based on this feedback, officials were able to draft a new settlement omitting this clause, thereby assuaging the concerns of Columbia’s electorate. The outcome of the Sovereign experiment is evidence of another one of liquid democracy’s fortes: the ability to report opinions with an unprecedented degree of nuance. In the next few years, we should expect to hear similar stories of communities profiting from this attention to detail, cementing liquid democracy as a true government of the people, by the people, for the people.
Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we think about democracy, transforming it from a passive process relying heavily on middlemen to a dialogue open to all that wish to participate. In order to do so, however, it must be given a chance—the only way liquid democracy can succeed is if we first recognize its necessity. Our democratic institutions have gone too long without an update. For the sake of our governments, it is high time we try something new.