By Kathryn Nave, Contributor
Pia Mancini clearly recalls the moment she realized that democracy was a broken system. “I was working on a political campaign and we were being shown around this huge barn packed up with mattresses and construction materials,” explained the former chief advisor to Buenos Aires’ Deputy-Secretary of Political Affairs.
It was the coldest time of year, in a deprived area of Buenos Aires, and when Mancini questioned what all this was for, she was told it was supplies allocated by the mayor for those in need. “Right,” she asked. “So why is it all being holed up in here?”
That was when she remembered that there was no mayoral election that year.
The problem, as she saw it, wasn’t specific to Argentina. Rather, the stalled election in Argentina was representative of the lack of accountability inherent to the system of democracy itself.
“We can accept or reject a certain group of [representatives],” she explained, “but we’re never involved in the regular process of how those people run the country.” For Mancini, while democratic elections allow the electorate to choose its political representatives, typically once every few years, there is no system of accountability for those representatives once in office.
Democracy for the Internet Age
According to Mancini, misrepresentation is a product of operating within a dated political system. While democratic republics were formed centuries ago, she explained in a 2014 TEDGlobal talk in Rio de Janeiro, porous borders and the internet have fundamentally changed our relationship to representation, revealing cracks in the concept of the nation state.
Why, she asked herself, should this not be reflected in our current voting system?
“Think about it this way,” Mancini explained, “we are 21st century citizens doing our very best to interact with 19th century-designed institutions that are based on an information technology of the 15th century.”
In April 2012, in response to growing frustration at the lack of accountability among elected officials, Mancini launched an app called DemocracyOS, designed to enable any political organization to provide a platform for its constituents to discuss and vote on new legislation. Alongside the app, Mancini co-founded the political party, ‘Partido de la Red,’ with a pledge to tie elected members’ votes to the decisions of DemocracyOS users.
While Partido de la Red missed out on enough votes to secure a seat in the 2013 Buenos Aires elections, the city agreed to upload all 350 bills introduced in the following year onto DemocracyOS. The move would give citizens the opportunity to directly weigh in on individual pieces of legislation.
Despite progress, Mancini soon realized that upturning the democratic process at the state level was thinking too small.
“We are 21st century citizens doing our very best to interact with 19th century-designed institutions that are based on an information technology of the 15th century.”
— Pia Mancini
“The problem with a territorial organization of power is that we are allowing the voices of over 50 percent of the world [the percentage of the global population not living in fully democratic countries, according to US-based NGO, Freedom House] to be mediated by non-democratic governments,” she said. “If we can provide a form of non-territorial jurisdiction within which we all have some agency, then having a voice in the world stops being an accident of birth.”
For example, why should Mancini be represented by Argentina at international climate change discussions when she doesn’t support its environmental policies? Why is there no system to allow her to register her political support behind a state whose stance is much more closely aligned with her views?
Similarly, why should a person who leaves their birth country have any less of a say in regional or global migration policies in the moments they are in transit or crisis?
“The internet has the potential to offer another kind of jurisdiction— a jurisdiction that operates outside of the nation state,” Mancini expressed. “It can allow us to remove territories as the sole factor around which we organize power.”
But while DemocracyOS was adequate for taking votes on the local level, collecting votes from millions of individuals across the world, she realized, would require a more robust infrastructure. So, in 2015, Mancini teamed with a group of activists and technologists at DemocracyOS to build such system. The group founded Democracy.Earth, launched under the name Sovereign, in 2017. Sovereign uses blockchain to allow each individual to register a unique identity in a decentralized, incorruptible ledger. Registration is then associated with a set number of encrypted vote tokens, similar to a unit of cryptocurrency, and used to guarantee the integrity of the registered user’s votes.
“The internet has the potential to offer another kind of jurisdiction— a jurisdiction that operates outside of the nation state.”
— Pia Mancini
Blockchain Governance in Action
Sovereign’s first pilot election took place from September 30th to October 3rd 2016. The idea was to host a symbolic global plebiscite on whether to endorse the Colombian government’s proposed peace deal with the FARC guerrillas.
With seven million citizens living abroad, Colombia has one of the largest diaspora in the world—less than ten percent of whom are officially registered to vote. Democracy.Earth set up a Sovereign-based website, called plebiscitodigital.co, which allowed around 7,000 Colombian citizens from across the world to authenticate their identities against the Colombian government’s own database of national ID card numbers and register their votes.
In the official referendum, the peace deal was rejected by a scarce 0.25% margin. Yet Sovereign’s more granular breakdown revealed that the majority of the platform’s Colombian population disagreed with only a single element of the overall deal: opening political participation to former FARC members.
“Normally these questions get boiled down to a single ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on one contentious issue,” Mancini explained. “Instead, we divided the proposed peace deal into six key points, which could then be voted on individually.”
The vote enabled Mancini and her team to see that, at least within the Sovereign constituency, it was only one portion of the bill that brought down the referendum. And while the votes were merely symbolic, the process caught the attention of the Colombian government. Colombian officials are now exploring how else the platform might be used for political gain.
While the plebiscite still relied on cross referencing identification against a government database, the ultimate aim of Sovereign is authenticate identity in its own right. The power of Sovereign lies in its ability to use each individual’s blockchain-based digital identity to create a truly independent democratic platform that can collect votes outside of government institutions. Such a system is already being tested by the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong as a way to organize shadow voting on political issues, preventing interference from the Chinese government.
Accountability without Chaos
For Mancini, requiring every member of society to vote on each issue is a recipe for chaos as not every issue is pertinent to that individual. To get around this noise, Sovereign uses a form of voting called liquid democracy.
The principle of true direct democracy, whereby every citizen is given a voice on every issue, becomes unwieldy in large communities. Instead, liquid democracy aims to strike a balance between this granular approach and the limited accountability of government representation, by enabling users to choose whether to cast their own vote or to delegate it to someone with more expertise, on a case-by-case basis. The idea is that liquid democracy allows individuals to have a say in every issue that matters to them without creating the expectation that everybody’s voice is required on every single topic of debate.
“Everyone receives a set number of vote tokens and they can distribute those to others whom they trust, specifically for voting on a particular topic, or for a pre-set period of time,” Mancini explained. “So, I can allow some leading medical professional to vote on my behalf for all healthcare policies except for say, abortion, because maybe I have strong personal views on that.”
For Mancini, the liquid democracy model is a much more dynamic and efficient framework for communal governance.
“Human cooperation at large scale has only previously been achieved by national governments through a system of laws and punishments,” Mancini said. “But blockchain, this beautiful technology, has the potential to enable people across the world to come together and self-organize – without any central authority.”