How this Uruguayan political party built the world’s first live blockchain liquid democracy
Blockchain provides novel solutions to some of the century-old problems with democracy.
An interesting partnership has emerged.
- Uruguay's Digital Party: A small independent political party in Uruguay, focused on using technology to transparently represent the will of the people.
- Aeternity: A smart contract-type protocol-level blockchain with interesting design choices such as a proof of work Bitcoin-NG Cuckoo Cycle consensus mechanism, and a strong emphasis on on-chain governance.
A blockchain-based liquid democracy voting system for Partido Digital to help facilitate citizen decision-making.
The Digital Party is exploring blockchain voting, which perfectly meshes with its mandate of transparency and collective decision-making. More specifically, it's working on a two-phase liquid democracy project with Aeternity.
What's a liquid democracy?
A liquid democracy is like a hybrid voting system which falls between direct democracy (everyone votes on things themselves) and a representative democracy (people put their trust in representatives of political parties).
In a liquid democracy, people can directly vote for issues, as well as vest their votes in another person that they trust to vote correctly on their behalf. That person can then vest all those votes in someone else further up the chain, and so on.
The end result is a system that's theoretically perfectly accessible to anyone, where individuals can directly have their say on any issue, while minimising problems like voter fatigue, low engagement and the problems with scalability that have limited the scope of direct democracies to date.
It's important to emphasise that while you can vest your votes in a person, you are not necessarily voting for a person. Rather, a liquid democracy is typically envisioned as a system where people vote for individual issues instead.
Phase 1: What blockchain voting looks like in the real world
The first phase is the development of a voting dapp for the Digital Party to use internally, for its own party decision-making. The idea is that Digital Party members can vote on specific issues, and then party leaders can then transparently represent the genuine will of party members in parliament, across all individual issues.
In this way, Partido Digital is turning politics upside down.
In the traditional system, the party has its politics and voters have to find a party which best matches their beliefs, inevitably making some compromises as they do.
But the Digital Party does it the other way around. The party itself changes to suit its members. It's a flexible vehicle for representing its members, rather than some brick of cemented political beliefs for people to follow.
The party's blockchain liquid democracy will be how its members make their will known to representatives.
And it's no coincidence that the system it uses will be similar to the voting system the Aeternity blockchain already uses.
Aeternity and the Digital Party came across each other via the ORT University Centre of Entrepreneurship, where Aeternity has opened a blockchain hub, explains Pablo Coirolo, Aeternity's CEO of the Americas.
"Through the university we were looking for real world applications of the Aeternity blockchain. And a person at the university said, 'look, we have a Digital Party here who's been looking for a solution and how do this with blockchain - they haven't found it.' Basically, we sat down at a table and we explained how our liquid democracy works," Coirolo recalls. "And it was exactly what the political party wanted to do."
"In terms of their liquid democracy, this new Digital Party, their idea is that whoever represents people does liquid democracy consultation on all the things that they have to vote on, and they will use our platform for their internal voting. And then the representative will vote in parliament, according to what the people decided to vote."
For the end user, the experience is basically being able to vote on any kind of issue in real time, with tangible reassurance that their vote actually matters and is being counted. Similarly, voters can also propose and debate ideas – in a way that actually matters – via the Partido Digital MiVoz (My Voice) tool.
"So it's really a revamping of the democratic system. Instead of being asked once every four years – or five years depending on what country you're in – to vote for a person, now you can vote for the issues that are important to you. You can have a voice," Coirolo explains.
It's going to be a live liquid democracy, and if it all goes well it may have significant implications. This potential for high stakes is why blockchain was a necessary prerequisite for the project (more on this below).
The internal Partido Digital liquid democracy is phase one. Phase two is a complete overhaul of global democracy as we know it and the ushering in of a more efficient and democratic utopia of collective decision-making with the power of digital blockchain liquid democracy.
It's kind of a long term goal.
Phase 2: Long term goals
Everywhere you look, you can see a situation that would benefit from the direct application of liquid democracy to the affected area, says Coirolo.
"I think one of the advantages of liquid democracy is to increase constituent participation in the decisions that affect them," he says. "So right now we can see it everywhere in the world. If you take, for example, Brexit, the population took a vote – in terms of Brexit – and we're now [maybe] going to have an execution of a no-deal Brexit."
"If we had a liquid democracy implemented in the UK, right now, you might find out that the people who voted in the past to go for Brexit, today don't want to go for Brexit."
"You could be making a decision that was based on a historical account. And then, when people understand the realities of the implications, want to change their mind. But the politicians don't ask for a second referendum on it... we could be making a major decision that will change people's lives, where the people are saying 'no we don't want to go off this cliff,' but they have no real way to do it."
It's normal to change your mind. In fact, changing one's mind is usually a positive and affirming experience which proves that there's some kind of growth and learning going on. But even when the stakes are as high as they've ever been, legacy democratic systems don't allow people to meaningfully change their minds more than once every few years.
A nation-wide liquid democracy would be a radical change for almost any nation.
All the existing democratic edifices; region-specific representatives, a congress, election cycles, political parties and so on, are all incidental cogs in democracy, installed decades, or in some cases centuries, ago.
A nation-wide digital liquid democracy would be about stepping back and saying that with today's technology it's possible to rebuild a much more efficient and effective type of democracy. It would be a complete overhaul, but "that's what I think we need," Coirolo says.
"We need a complete overhaul. And this is not only happening in England. It's happening in the United States, it's happening in Hong Kong, its happening all over the world."
And naturally, it's also happening in Uruguay, whose major political parties are among the oldest in the world.
The dominant players are "the Red Party, the white party and the Frente Amplio, which is the left, which has been in power for the last 15 years," Coirolo explains. "The two traditional parties are the Red party, and the White party. These are actually some of the oldest political parties in the world (both were founded about a month apart in 1836) ... and they haven't changed."
If you look around the world, you may be struck by a sense that most lasting democracies coalesce into equivalent local flavours: a generic brand-name conservative party, a diet progressive party, and the "I can't believe it's not conservative/progressive!" clusters of independents.
"You're starting to see that the local democratic system is not really representing the people," Coirolo says. "Remember, all this started in the era of 1776 - with the US system - and that sense that you needed indirect democracy, because the people didn't know what was best for them."
"I think today been proven that people do know what's best for them, and you can't just go say a lot of pretty things and then do exactly the opposite."
Dissatisfaction with the current system is not a new phenomenon in the countries which are lucky enough to enjoy fair-ish and only lightly corrupt representative democracies.
What's new is the technology to meaningfully address it.
Flexible liquid democracies on a large scale weren't possible prior to digital technology, because it wasn't possible to reliably keep track of who was vesting votes where, and to ensure that people could vest and withdraw votes as desired. These plain limitations were the first hurdle, and computers largely solved them.
But the second set of hurdles is much more complex, and includes issues such as balancing the conflicting needs of transparency and privacy, and maintaining democratic checks and balances.
If you give your vote to someone, you have to be able to see what they do with it, and the votes of public figures should probably be transparent. But in a liquid democracy, everyone can potentially be a politician of sorts if enough votes are vested in them. You can't simply flip someone's voting visibility to public while they have votes vested in them though, and you have to ensure that people's votes are private.
You can't give everyone complete oversight, but at the same time, everyone needs the assurance that the system is working as intended, that there's no vote tampering, that all voters are eligible and so on.
And what about checks and balances? For all its downsides, the inefficiency and partisanship of representative democracies present a powerful safeguard against dictators, and the risk of a dictator seizing control of a nation through sham elections is very real. By turning an entire nation's democracy into an efficient computer program, you lose these safeguards and increase the risks.
How can a liquid democracy be sufficiently transparent without compromising personal privacy? Who can you trust to implement these rules, and what about checks and balances?
This second set of problems is much tougher than the first. But with the advent of blockchain, they're solvable for the first time. The main reason people are talking about overhauling centuries-old democracies now isn't so much because dissatisfaction with the system is boiling over. Rather, it's simply because we now have the technology to start seriously considering it.
How blockchain solves liquid democracies
You can think of a blockchain as a programmable and perfectly neutral decentralised computing network. It will operate precisely as programmed in a completely tamper-proof way.
That's how it works in theory at least. In its current form, the technology is reliable enough to facilitate non-binding internal decision-making in a party, but you probably wouldn't want to entrust an entire country's democracy to a blockchain yet.
Still, with a perfectly neutral and tamper-proof computing platform you have a perfect framework for building a programmable democracy. By entrusting matters to the blockchain itself, you can do things like simultaneously ensure that people know where their own vote is going, that no one can see anyone else's votes, and that the total vote counts are reliable.
As an open source blockchain program, anyone can examine the inner workings of the democracy program to see exactly how it works, while being confident that the version of democracy underpinning elections is the same version that they are looking at. You can even program rules into the system to prevent anyone from changing or updating it without the overwhelming consensus of all voters.
These kinds of characteristics also make blockchain perfect for more transparently showing government financial disclosures.
"Blockchain assures you is that this decision process is not hacked," Coirolo summarises. "For God's sake, everything has been hacked... if you're going to do this in a way that is not hackable, then you use a blockchain."
The Partido Digital system also uses blockchain to ensure that everyone's votes remain private, while also ensuring that only registered members of the digital party can vote. At the same time, someone actually has to be a registered member of the Digital Party to place a vote.
Basically, people register and verify themselves as a member of the Digital Party, at which point they are given a unique blockchain voting rights token. This token is unique but is not identifiably associated with a person. The blockchain itself then ensures that only people with tokens can vote. It secretly tallies up all the votes for issues and announces how many people vote for what, without saying who voted for what.
If anyone doubts that this is exactly what the system is doing, they can pull it apart and check out its programming for themselves.
The end result is a voting system that's simultaneously tamper-proof and fair, secret and transparent.
Even if this kind of blockchain liquid democracy was ready for large-scale applications, it's safe to say migrating an entire country onto it would be challenging. The main problem could be that even if it was a demonstrably superior alternative to an existing democratic system, that would still not be enough.
Consider how the USA still uses an objectively inferior first-past-the-post system even though switching to ranked choice voting would be an easy way of instantly improving things. At the same time, the voting machines which account for some 20% of ballots cast nation-wide are easy to hack and don't keep a paper trail, so there's actually no way of knowing they're even working as intended. Even solving a problem as blatant as unreliable voting machines is a complex multi-year affair. And let's not even get started on election fraud, voter suppression and gerrymandering.
In that context, how could something as drastic as blockchain liquid democracy ever get across the line?
This project could also show a way forward in that regard. By using this system for itself, the Digital Party ensures that it, as a party, exemplifies the will of its members. As its membership grows to include a larger portion of Uruguay, it will more closely reflect the will of the people around the country.
Taken to its conclusion the use of blockchain liquid democracy within existing political parties can result in a hybrid model of sorts, where parties themselves can better represent people and people can directly get a say on all issues with all the benefits of a liquid democracy, but the nation as a whole retains its representative democracy and all the infrastructure that goes along with it.
This hybrid phase would also help smooth out the many other real world problems that would undoubtedly arise if you tried to flip an entire country to a digital democracy overnight.
It's inevitable, Coirolo says. But "it's a process... You can't jump, in one day, to a liquid democracy. But I think what this party is doing is going in the right steps."
"What they're doing is they're showing, by example, how real participation should work."
Disclosure: The author holds BNB, BTC at the time of writing.