Political scholars could take a number of lessons from the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Perhaps one of the most obvious is that our voting process is not immune to meddling. Countries from Kenya to Honduras have had to contend with contested elections in the past, but the Russian interference in the 2016 election is arguably without precedent for the U.S. With the 2018 midterms fast approaching, some experts fear that the cracks in our political process through which meddlers infiltrated have not yet been sealed.
Over the past few years, a growing chorus has asked: Why not take elections digital? If voters could weigh in via a hyper-secure app, wouldn’t it make voting more convenient, which could allow more people to weigh in more often? A voting app could ensure that we have a more direct democracy, or at least a “liquid democracy,” in which individual voters have more contact with their representatives.
But the equation might not be as simple as it seems. Some experts fear that sophisticated voting technology might exclude the less tech-savvy among us, or those who can’t afford a smartphone or computer. Others point out that taking voting totally digital might, in fact, make our elections more vulnerable to hacking; for some, only paper ballots are hack-proof.
Futurism touched base with the experts to see if digital elections would be better for American citizens, or for our democracy.
First, it’s worth discussing what kind of political shift, exactly, tech would best be used for. Areeq Chowdhury, the chief executive of WebRoots Democracy, “a voluntary, youth-led think tank focused on the intersection of technology and democratic participation” based in the United Kingdom:
Liquid democracy is an interesting idea, and the idea of giving everyone the power to vote on everything in the palm of their hands is a powerful one. In theory, it could lead to a system where everyone’s views are meaningfully listened to and acted upon, with the will of the majority truly represented.
It is not the same, however, as direct democracy. With liquid democracy, the voter should be able to assign their votes on certain issues to certain representatives, and be able to take them away. This would mean that you, as a voter, could assign your votes on an issue to someone who you deem sufficiently knowledgeable, leading to educated votes. However, this could also leave it open to being gamed by lobby groups. For it to truly work as a system, political education must be made mandatory in schools, and there would need to be serious investment in democratic engagement to ensure that enough people use the app. The first question that needs to be answered is, “do people actually want this?”
So could tech help? Steve Ressler, the founder of GovLoop.com, a social network to connect government officials:
Governments and elected officials have always wanted to get constituent feedback on issues. However, there have always been barriers — it’s hard for folks to drive downtown to attend a townhall meeting in person, find transportation to get to a voting booth, or spend the time to write a letter or call an official. The ubiquitous nature of smartphones has the potential to dramatically increase the number of people involved in the democratic process by making it easier.
It does this in a couple ways — you can provide feedback regardless of your location and, by making it real-time with short feedback loops, it decreases the time commitment. While I love idea of using smartphones to get more feedback, I believe we elect officials to not just do a straw poll on every issue — tough issues require bringing together citizen input with thoughtful judgment to make decisions.
Rouven Brües, a project manager at the Liquid Democracy Association, a nonprofit dedicated to digital civil action:
Digital media technologies can be transformative because they enable us to rethink and remodel our democracies. New ideas that are technically feasible today, such as the delegation of votes through an app, enable us to envision the democracies to come, even though their implementation might still be facing practical difficulties.
In practice, changing democratic processes with technology is not so easy.Voting is the last step in a democratic decision-making processes and arguably one of the smaller ones if you look at the whole process: setting an agenda, forming arguments and positions in a discourse, finding compromises between conflicting positions, and merging these in concrete (law) proposals.
Through our work, we have come to understand that neither apps nor software will completely replace the democratic processes in place, since they can only model parts of the process.
Using an app to receive delegations from citizens and voters is a smart way to include them in the decision-making process. However, this runs the risk that the politician doing so renounces any possibility to negotiate compromises. So how useful an app actually is to collect delegations and votes depends on the decisions that have to be made.
In any case, we strongly believe that all democratic- and civic-tech tools have to be open (as in open-source) if they want to have a sustainable impact and benefit for society and if they want to be transparent and trustworthy.
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