Shoring Up Democracy — With Technology

In an era of fake news, and at a time when elections appear increasingly vulnerable to outside meddling, it can seem tougher than ever to keep citizens engaged in politics. Many people feel that traditional political processes no longer reflect what they want, and in many parts of the world, voting remains difficult — even dangerous. And if an election is subject to being been hacked or rigged, why even bother?

That sort of creeping disillusionment has governments and transparency advocates from Taiwan to Argentina looking to technology to strengthen and simplify the political process. Their aim: to make it easier for average citizens to participate in politics and to make their collective will both known and verifiable.

Since 2014, Taiwan has been using an online polling system called, created by a Seattle-based company of the same name, to integrate popular opinion into what laws get passed. Unlike the petitions on the White House website, which rarely translate into policy, surveys have become a formal part of Taiwan’s lawmaking process. The surveys ask respondents to agree or disagree with a series of simple statements about controversial topics — whether a proposed trade deal with China is good for Taiwanese workers, for example or whether Uber drivers should need taxi licenses — and the artificial intelligence software determines where there is the most agreement.

Last year, data helped the Taiwanese Parliament decide how to regulate online alcohol sales and set rules for short-term rentals on platforms like Airbnb. prompted citizens through an online survey to agree or disagree with a set of statements for or against regulations: “I think Airbnb should pay taxes to the government of the place of business,” for example, or “I think we should limit the number of days you can Airbnb one’s own residence.” Respondents can also submit their own views in writing.

When issues involve less tech-savvy stakeholders, the government holds an in-person deliberation with citizens and broadcasts it on for countrywide commentary, as it did in the remote Hengchun province in early 2017 when working to improve local access to medical care. Digital Minister Audrey Tang says now partly sets the parliamentary agenda, with users submitting their own concerns for the appropriate ministry to resolve. Her government has promised to address any issue receiving more than 5,000 signatures on a electronic petition.

The challenge with online voting, of course, is ensuring that voters are who they say they are, and that they aren’t otherwise gaming the system. In many parts of the world, where visiting polling stations carries a serious safety risk, online voting can seem like an easy solution, but virtual identities need to be verified to avoid voter fraud.

In Brazil, the Ministry of Planning, Budget and Management, with support from Microsoft and tech startup ConsenSys, has already started testing a new system that can verify a voter’s identity online. Digital Citizen Platform is designed to allow people to do tasks such as register property online and securely share official documents across multiple government agencies. The system is a small step toward “establishing a new model of trust between government and society,” says Adriane Medeiros Melo, head of the ministry’s information technology department. Trust is extremely important in Brazil, where there have been more than 150 corruption convictions involving current or former government officials in the past three years.  

Eliminating corruption was the impetus for Sovereign, an online voting software developed by Silicon Valley nonprofit Democracy.Earth. Co-founder Santiago Siri experienced the corrosive influence of corruption in politics firsthand when he tried to start a new political party in Argentina in 2013. The party’s candidate promised to vote with constituents on every issue, based on how people responded on an online voting platform. The party got only 1 percent of the vote, but its leaders still experienced backlash, prompting Siri to wonder if allowing public participation in politics wasn’t as popular an idea as he’d imagined.

“We had very subtle threats when we were having political meetings,” says Siri, who found the tires on his car punctured on more than one occasion. The real challenge in politics, Siri realized, wasn’t people getting their voices heard by their elected representatives. It was the innate corruption keeping people out of the political process entirely. This led him to an alternative democratic system called “liquid democracy” — a mix of representative democracy (citizens voting for elected officials) and direct democracy (citizens voting on laws). In a liquid democracy, citizens have the right to vote directly on any bill online, or to hand their votes to someone else — such as a friend, family member, or expert in a given field — if they’re too busy or uninformed to weigh in on certain matters.

With this new democratic system in mind, Siri and the Democracy.Earth team created Sovereign, which aims to help make it possible for citizens to securely and anonymously vote or pass along votes online.

Sovereign’s software, like the Brazilian identification platform, is based on “blockchain” — the technology best known as the backbone of cryptocurrencies bitcoin and ether. Blockchain transaction logs are stored across several open-book databases sealed by complex mathematical proofs, making them difficult to alter. Individual records can be audited by anyone, and they must match the other logs to be considered honest. Blockchains only fail if more than 50 percent of record keepers decide to change a transaction (or vote). While not impossible, it’s certainly more challenging than tampering with a centralized voting system that has few or no external audits and isn’t open to outside scrutiny.

By converting voter IDs to unique numbers, the Sovereign blockchain keeps users anonymous. Anyone can verify their vote, but no one will know who made it — a key to eliminating voter suppression in a democratic system, the founders said.

The Democracy.Earth team says its software has already demonstrated the value of having the public’s participation in politics. A year ago, when Colombian voters narrowly rejected a referendum on a peace agreement between the government and the Communist FARC guerrillas, Sovereign allowed Colombians living abroad to cast symbolic votes through its system, voting on each item in the agreement separately, instead of giving a simple “yes” or “no” to the whole accord.

Per the Sovereign votes, there was only one aspect of the referendum that the population overwhelmingly disagreed with: allowing political participation of the FARC guerrillas in legislature. Siri said he believes that if the public could have been part of the policy conversation when the referendum was drafted, instead of just participating in an up-or-down vote, that provision might have been eliminated and the referendum could have passed. (In November, Colombia’s Congress approved a revised agreement.)

Of course, bringing public dialogue into the policy process isn’t necessarily a cure-all for democracy’s woes, even in a small and open government like Taiwan’s. The process itself requires a whole new set of safeguards, says Tang, who’s working on an eight-year plan to modernize the country’s political process by creating a secure, accessible online space where citizens can participate. Besides adding transparency to government dealings — Tang posts all of her interviews and meeting transcripts online so anyone can read them — the Taiwanese government is investing in the technology needed to make digital policymaking possible.

When the public servants trust people this way, through transparency and participation, as Tang explains, perhaps some people will start to trust the public servants as partners.

“I think it will take a generation or so for the government to trust people by default,” she says.

Marisa Megan is a Brazilian-American freelance travel writer who has spent the last 10 years exploring the untouched corners of Central and South America. She is currently based in Portugal.