Liquid democracy could help answer Europe’s legitimacy crisis

By Avital Balwit

Digital technology enables the emergence of a new kind of democratic participation that can help Europe overcome a loss of trust in government.

‘Liquid democracy’ is not a new concept but a hybrid of existing systems of democracy. In a direct democracy, everyone votes on all the issues. In a representative democracy, everyone gets to vote on the representative who then votes on all of the issues. Liquid democracy is based on a dynamic representation model in which the power of a vote is not frozen with a representative between election periods, but is liquid – that is, it is able to flow back and forth between the voter and the representatives to whom they delegate.

Instead of having representatives based on territory who vote on all issues for their constituents, liquid democracy allows individuals to choose representatives that are experts on narrow policy issues or members of their social network while retaining the ability to revoke their vote, or delegation, at any time. It creates a more flexible system that enables greater participation while still allowing for knowledgeable representation.

It is developments in digital technology that have made liquid democracy a feasible voting system. Any notion of delegating and revoking with paper ballots would be functionally impossible due to its sheer complexity. But the internet makes sending someone a vote, tracking how they used it, and revoking the vote, a simple matter.

However, the internet is a highly insecure place to hold elections. Making elections more digital on the current internet would be foolish; centralization is fundamentally incompatible with democracy.

This is where blockchains come in. They allow for information to be stored in a decentralized manner that makes it functionally impossible to manipulate – in a word, incorruptible. The first blockchain was the bitcoin blockchain, invented by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009, which stores the transactions of Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency. But blockchains can be used for much more than just financial transactions; they are a secure and auditable way to store many types of information.

A blockchain is a distributed ledger system. A ledger is a record or database full of data such as transactions or votes. In a blockchain, this ledger is held in multiple places – in other words, it is decentralized. It is maintained by ‘nodes’ – essentially computers running a program that is specific to that blockchain. A copy of the ledger is held on every node in the network. Anyone who downloads this program can view the ledger and know that the copy they are viewing will be constantly updated and checked against everyone else’s copy to ensure that they match perfectly. They are kept synchronized because all the nodes are connected to the internet and are able to update in real time.

These nodes use a special consensus algorithm to make sure that they all are holding a ledger with the same information and history. To overpower this algorithm, someone would have to take control of more than half of the computing power in order to convince the network to change this ledger or to add false information.

This is what makes blockchains so special. To change data in a centralized source, like standard websites, someone only has to gain access to one point. But with a blockchain, one has to overpower hundreds or thousands of points. Also, centralized sites keep their data and algorithms secret, whereas with blockchains, anyone can view the data being stored and download the program that manages the ledger. This ‘permissionless auditing’ means anyone can audit the information to make sure it is accurate, without needing access provided by intermediaries.

At the same time, though blockchains store information publicly and are easy to audit, they still preserve anonymity. Recorded in the ledger are data alongside digital public keys. Every user has a pair of digital keys: a public one, which anyone can see but cannot trace back to the user; and a private one, which they use to access their data and they know is linked to the public key. This allows them to check the ledger to see that their data were recorded correctly; others cannot see who conducted which transactions or cast which votes (unless the identity is publicly linked to the address).

Liquid democracy offers voters new forms of representation and participation. Voters are able to delegate votes to not only elected representatives, but to members of their own social group. Today, the ability to be a politician (i.e. a professional citizen) takes capital and influence; with liquid democracy, representatives could emerge from the citizenry based on locality and expertise, ensuring the system cannot be overrun by financial interests.

Liquid democracy based on blockchain technology can also help Europe overcome its legitimacy crisis. Europeans are losing faith in the European Union – for example, a recent poll showed that only three in ten Italians felt that their opinions mattered in the European Union. Liquid democracy could radically improve the legitimacy of decision-making. If EU member states were to adopt a form of liquid democracy that allowed their citizens to have more of a direct and constant say in shaping policy, it could help restore their trust in government. The ability of citizens to verify a vote count, including their own, can further restore trust in the process and outcome of elections, no small thing in this age of foreign influence and social media manipulation of voters.

Note that, in an election, revoking votes and delegates would take place within the framework of the constitutional smart contracts governing the election. Nevertheless, features like ‘always-on’ voting provide continuing value – for example eliminating the need for third-party polling and becoming a means of following public opinion on important public issues.

Liquid democracy could incentivize and boost participation while bringing representation closer to home. A system that used the blockchain to implement this would mean that the results of that participation would be transparently available for all to see and would be safe from tampering. Most of all, liquid democracy would give any populace that feels unheard demonstrable, incorruptible evidence that their voice is included.

Avital Balwit University of Virginia

Sophomore studying Political and Social Thought at University of Virginia, a research assistant on the Radical Markets project, and a student ambassador for Democracy Earth.

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